Charles Bazilewich and Robert Esposito run the Sisler Cyber School, the first of its kind in Canada, which specializes in technology education.

It’s a rare occurrence to have employers reach out to high schools looking to recruit students straight from the classroom into the workforce. But for technology teachers Charles Bazilewich and Robert Esposito, this is not out of the ordinary, nor surprising.

“With the model we have here, we have kids who are employment-ready right out of high school,” says Esposito. “I don’t think a lot of people realize the tech sector has an almost zero unemployment rate for the most part. What other industry in history has come in asking for high school students?”

The school offers an eight-course cluster in Networking and Cyber Security covering topics such as hardware, operating systems, network technologies, security systems and server administration. The goal of the program is to prepare students to be effective digital citizens, enable students’ successful transition to post-secondary, and to ultimately contribute to Manitoba’s IT workforce. Students completing the Network and Cyber Security Academy receive a specialized high school diploma in Senior Years Technology Education, and advanced placement within several post-secondary programs. Post high school students also have the option of coming back to finish courses free of charge.

Cyber Savvy Students are Job-ready

“This program is an excellent steppingstone,’ says Esposito. “All the systems that they’re using here, all the infrastructure and all the content is no different than in post secondary programs or the workplace.”

The Sisler Cyber School’s first iteration dates back to 2010 and has since evolved to a full Grade 9-12 course program taught by Bazilewich and Esposito who have a tech background and the credentials to teach the curriculum.

“Cyber security is the focus of the program due to the need in the industry and we recognized a long time ago that it will create employment opportunities for students,” says Bazilewich. “This class for example is working on a program called Cyber Ops. They’re getting fundamental skills on what it’s like to be an entry level cyber security analyst in a security operations center.”

Those abilities begin in Grade 9 when the students are first introduced to computer technology. The first year class integrates offices skills such as Power Point, Excel and Word and teaches students practical computing tasks such as how to move and un-compress files or take a screenshot and the fundamentals on how to stay secure online.

“With the Grade 9s we start off at the very beginning – like why you should have a password, and how to secure your user accounts. I’ve had a student tell me their Instagram account was hacked and I’m like ‘Okay great, let’s use this as a case project and find out what went wrong from a security perspective.”

“Even if a student is not interested in getting a job in tech, we are really built into the technology portion of an academic school where we have students who come just to learn how to build a computer, or to learn the networking system of the internet. And they leave high school with a fairly good understanding of this digital world that they’re living in,” says Esposito.

“The misconception is that kids know a lot about tech,” says Esposito. “But truthfully they don’t. They know how to access games and apps on their mobiles devices but if you dive deeper they don’t really know how the internet works, or how to install an operating system, or the setting for the firewall on their computer.”

In fact, the teachers see some Grade 9s coming in who don’t even have email addresses.

“This generation hasn’t grown up on desktops. They have a phone and a tablet but you put a mouse in their hand and they don’t actually know how to use the system,” says Bazilewich.

This is one of the many reasons the lab at Sisler Cyber School only runs desktop computers. iPads, laptops and mobile devices become outdated quickly, are not easily fixed and do not have the same computing power as desktops which easily last the 5 year cycle and have parts that can be easily replaced.

“One of the things I love is how cost effective this program is. Most of the software the students are using is available for free. The hardware is the biggest expense but it is very cost efficient. If done correctly it’s not going to bankrupt the school budget.”

The students do not need laptops for the course or have to purchase any equipment themselves. And when Covid hit the program seamlessly transitioned to at home learning. “Everything we’ve done since 2010 has been online. Everything we can do here at school the kids can do at home online.”

Awards for Teaching Excellence

Both teachers have been recipients of the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence and got a chance to meet Justin Trudeau. The pair have also attended numerous cyber competitions with the Cyber Defence club, travelling with students to places such as Washington DC, New York City and all over Canada. Banners from all the competitions decorate the two computer labs.

The cyber competitions are a big perk of the program and challenges run throughout the year. The Cyber Defence club usually enters around seven competitions a year where students must figure out various security measures, answer forensic questions and solve integrated puzzles. The team plays against other student teams across Canada and internationally.

Bazilewich and Esposito say they’ve had questions from other teachers across the country and have had people come to tour the labs at school interested in learning more about how the program operates. The two are happy to provide support and advice to others.

“We’ve had learning curves and made mistakes but now we have an efficient and sustainable model going forward,” says Esposito.

“Education over the past 20 or so years has tried to figure out what technology ed means and what it looks like. And I think we have it, we have the model. And the results are here – kids are getting jobs, they’re going to post secondary, we have a lot of interest and a waiting list. This model provides all students an opportunity.”

– Originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of the MB Teacher