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November 19, 2015

Memphis Boys & Girls Club Program is Aiming for A+

By Eric Larson, Director, IT Futures Labs

BriahnaChambers Briahna Chambers of Tech901
Briahna Chambers is accustomed to meeting a challenge, even those that appear to others to be impossible for her.

In college she broke 10 longstanding school track-and-field records. Her best event was the long jump, but it wasn’t supposed to be: She is only five-foot-two.

“Some of those athletes from competing teams were over six feet tall, and they didn’t expect to be beaten by someone as short as me,” Chambers recalls. “They sure were surprised.”

Now Chambers is attempting something just as daunting: Helping a group of mostly high-school students to achieve a professional IT certification in an after-school class.

Chambers graduated from Hanover College in Indiana with a degree that blended computer science and the arts. Today she is employed by Tech901, a new nonprofit in Memphis dedicated to augmenting the tech workforce in that city by training youth and adults.

The group has partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis to offer the first IT training course at the Juice Plus+ Technical Training Center, established by the clubs in 2006 to help young people in need of opportunity to skill-up toward decent paying jobs.

Information technology has joined the culinary arts and logistics tracks at the center aimed at high school and college students ages 16 to 21. The students earn stipends ($200 a month for the IT portion) so that low-income students who otherwise would take a low-skill part-time job can take advantage of the higher-skills training instead.

The first IT class launched Nov. 12 with 30 students out of 115 finalist applicants, with a nice mix of boys and girls. Most are ages 16 to 18. The curriculum for the course is mapped to CompTIA A+, a comprehensive IT certification that covers hardware, operating system software, and trouble-shooting, preparing a student for a help-desk technician or other entry-level IT role.

MemphisBoysGirlsClubChambers hopes to move through the material for CompTIA A+ over the next five months. Those completing the certification will have a better chance of landing paid IT work, she says.

Given the strenuous pace of the course, Chambers didn’t mince words with candidates during the application process.

“Throughout the whole recruiting process I was very clear about what my expectations were,” Chambers said. “We’re treating this class like a job, and the students know they will be held accountable for their actions. In the workplace, if you don’t meet the standards set for you, you get fired.”

Chambers knows that level of intensity is unusual for an after-school program. But because this program is geared toward preparing students for real-world work, there isn’t room for compromise. “I’m not babying them. They actually appreciate that,” she explains.

Chambers grew accustomed to disciplined culture while growing up a military brat. She spent the bulk of her impressionable years near Fort Hood where her mother was retired from the Army and her father was an active-duty infantryman.

Near the end of her college career she considered applying to Teach for America and teaching in Memphis for a year or two before entering graduate school. Her boyfriend at the time (now husband) was looking to train for a teaching career at Memphis Teacher Residency. It turns out that the President of MTR, David Montague, is the brother of Tech901’s Executive Director, Robert Montague.

“Briahna will provide a wonderful role model for these urban high school students,” said Robert Montague. “Her dedication, education, and computer science work experience give her a unique ability to not only teach the CompTIA A+ curriculum well, but also develop the students’ work ethic and soft skills.”

IT Futures Labs contributed a $5,500 grant to Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis in 2015 for instruction materials and is following the program’s progress to see what lessons can be applied to other after-school IT skill-building programs.

Tech901 and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis are going out on a limb to see just what these students can accomplish. And, so far, the students are responding to the challenge, judging by the comprehensive notes Chambers says they are taking in class.

“I would love every student to pass the A+ certification,” Chambers says. “I set the bar really high for them. That’s something I do in my personal life, and so that’s what I’m doing with them.”