North Carolina will be the first U.S. state to offer the Microsoft IT Academy Program to all public high schools statewide.

The partnership, announced Monday, Nov. 15, is a three-year contract between North Carolina and Microsoft to offer technology training to high school students as an elective in the 115 school districts across the state.

“In today’s economy, providing the Microsoft IT Academy to high schools just makes sense,” said State Superintendent June Atkinson in a press release. “The ability to effectively use Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access are essential skills in most businesses and offices today. I am pleased that North Carolina can provide this opportunity for teachers to improve their skills and for students to be career-ready.”

The pilot has been running since August, with 37 high schools currently exploring the program. An additional 20 school districts have agreed to field-test the program in select high schools beginning in January 2011, in time for the school year’s second semester. North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) officials said they anticipate all of the state's 628 public high schools will participate in time for the 2011-2012 school year.

Prior to signing the contract with Microsoft, many schools in North Carolina offered a semester-long computer applications course as an elective. The course was a top choice among students and typically enrolled 50,000 to 60,000 students annually, said Sara Clark, a spokesperson for the DPI.

In order to expand the program to other districts, the DPI wanted a cost-effective way to buy software and train teachers. The state partnered with Microsoft to offer a cloud-based system, which will cost the state $803,000 — as opposed to the $9 million it would have cost each school to purchase individually — for a three-year contract, said Clark. The DPI is already in talks about options for extending the program.

Each school chooses how many classes it wants to offer, although most schools in the pilot have begun with two different courses to learn skills like Excel, Word, Publisher, PowerPoint and Access.

After completing the Microsoft IT Academy coursework and passing certification exams, students are able to earn certification as a Microsoft Office Specialist or a Microsoft Certified Professional.

Also under the agreement, teachers will receive official Microsoft learning curricula as well as professional development support and resources to help them tailor their instruction. A website will also be available for teachers to share ideas.

Lauren Katims Nadeau  |  Contributing Writer