Success breeds success: Jim Elkins didn’t get into technology by design


“If you know how the Internet works, you can take that to any company anywhere in the world because everybody has a network.”


Jim Elkins didn’t get into technology by design.

“We were sitting in a staff meeting at the end of my first-year teaching and the superintendent asked who had taken computer classes in college. I was a first-year teacher, I was the youngest, and so I had, so I raised my hand,” he recounts. “They said ‘I'd like to introduce everyone to our new technology coordinator!’”

“From that point on, I was just focused on technology,” he says. “At that time, it was just getting computers into the classrooms, and then trying to find a way to fund Internet access to the schools, because none of them had them.”

“That really motivated me and made me really want to be more involved in technology, it was just that it was so new.”

After getting married and moving to Missouri to teach at North Tech, things got even more focused. The school’s Director had heard about Cisco Networking Academy at a conference, and asked “why aren't we doing this?”

Early Networking Academy

“The school approached me and asked me if I wanted to start a Cisco Network Academy,” says Jim. “I had no idea what a Cisco Academy was, but I had a new baby, and I'm like if that'll keep my job, I will absolutely start a Cisco Academy, not having a clue!”

While the training was more intense than he’d anticipated, Jim says the “instructor was incredible, and he really got me interested.”

“It was something brand new,” he says. “I'd never had anything like that in college and I'd never even thought that there was that kind of material out there, so it really opened my eyes a lot.”

Jim started the Networking Academy at North Tech in the 2001 school year. Being new, and running a Networking Academy 23 years ago, when it had only been established for a few years, was a challenge. “The Academy was still pretty new, so it didn't have the resources that we have now, so we had to wing it sometimes, just to get through,” he says.

Things have changed somewhat in the intervening years.

“I was lucky when four or five years ago they let me design myself a new classroom,” he says. “I set it up in cubicles like in an office, so that students could start to get used to that. In another area we have two large conference tables with nice black leather chairs. When we have our class discussions, that's where we are, around the conference tables. And when the students are doing their own work, they're in their cubicles, and they decorate their cubicles, like you would in an office. We have our racks for the routers and switches and workstations in front of those.”

“Every day when they walk in, I want them to feel like they're going to work,” he says, “not that they're just going into a normal class, because we're not a normal class.”

Technology changes, but some things stay the same

Over the years the classroom has changed, the technology’s changed, and the Academy program has changed, but Jim says his pitch to students at open houses has stayed remarkably consistent.

“I use this, and I've used it every year for 20 years,” he says. “I ask them when you're on the Internet, and you put in a website, how long does it take the page to come up? One or two seconds? I say, okay, it takes us two years in here to learn what happens in those two seconds.” Engaging potential students with something as familiar as the internet is probably easier than selling them on calculus, he jokes.

“There are very few people, relatively speaking, who actually know how the Internet works,” he says. “If you know how the Internet works, you can take that to any company anywhere in the world because everybody has a network.”

He also tells them why they shouldn’t take the course: “It's the hardest class that they'll take in high school because it is college material,” he says. “This also motivates a lot of these kids, because a lot of them, they're not challenged enough.”

Serving the underserved

What’s truly remarkable is that 90 percent of Jim’s very motivated students are considered at risk, based on qualifying for food subsidies.

Students are so engaged, that even after graduation and entering the workforce, many come back to talk to current students. “That's what makes it more amazing and why we continue to have success, because the current students are looking at the graduates that are coming in, and they're like, ‘they were me five years ago!’ It really does give them the motivation that sometimes I can't give them.”

“As students come back, they tell me that Networking Academy was their ticket. I've also heard them make comments about breaking the cycle.”

Jim’s remarkable achievements with the Academy program earned him an Above and Beyond Instructor Award from Cisco. “Any educator, we’re going to do our thing no matter what, but it's always awesome when somebody sees it,” he says.

But it isn’t the kudos that drives Jim. “This sounds a little cheesy, but seriously, my high point of every year is standing outside of the testing center, and when one of the students comes out with this big smile, or sometimes they come out and run at me and give me a huge bear hug,” he says. “Just whenever I see their success.”



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