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Q&A: Alabama Cyber School Chief Talks Growth, Programs

Matt Massey, president of the Alabama School for Cyber Technology and Engineering, is leading an independent state high school that focuses on cybersecurity and engineering and has recruited 333 students since 2020.

Matt Massey.jpg
Matt Massey, president of the new Alabama School of Cyber Technology & Engineering.
Lee Roop/TNS
(TNS) — Matt Massey could not pass up an opportunity build a school from the ground up.

He left his post as Madison County Schools superintendent after five years to become president of the new Alabama School for Cyber Technology and Engineering, which opened in 2020. The school was recently named the third best high school in Alabama by

Massey has been a math teacher at Buckhorn High School, and served as a mathlete teacher for the Madison County Schools system. He also served as a consultant with the National Math and Science Initiative.

“I helped with curriculum, teaching and learning in schools across the country,” Massey said.

He recently participated in a question-and-answer session with the Lede.

Can you talk a little bit about the school?

In 2018, it was signed into legislation. It passed the House and the Senate and was signed by the Gov. (Kay Ivey) as an independent, state high school focusing on cyber and engineering.

It’s like a university by model with a board of trustees and the structure, but it’s basically, we’ve got to teach cyber sooner. So, we’re independent from the State Department of Education in Montgomery that sets all of the standards. We get to develop our own standards and curriculum.

That’s what made it appealing to me. You get to start from scratch on building what is essentially a public school system free from a lot of bureaucracy that ties the hands of a lot of educators and administrators. It not just gives us an opportunity to build a school, but it allows us to assist other schools across the state replicating what we’re going to do.

In fact, I’m en route to meet with superintendents from all across northeast Alabama to talk about what we’re doing and set up our partnerships. We’re launching this year our ACCEL program — Advancing Cyber Concepts and Engineering Learning — and we’re going to be partnering with schools in eight to 10 school districts across the state in training their teachers and doing some camps, or cyber labs. We will help them do that, or we will host them up here.

What kind of careers are students looking at when they come to the school?

We’re not necessarily asking 13- or 14-year-olds to pick their careers, but obviously the school and their education revolve around the mission of engineering and cyber. So, that’s what they’re getting. But after that, we had a student who graduated last year who wants to go into law, and specialize in space law. We have others who want to go into technical writing to write about innovations in engineering, technology and cyber.

Of course, we have a ton of kids who want to go into engineering and cybersecurity. But we also have those who want to go into the biomedical field because our science classes talk about engineering. There is a huge engineering component to biotechnology.

If you come in and ask 15 of our students what kind of careers they’re interested in, you will probably get 10 different answers about their career fields. Some of these things, I haven’t heard of. And we want to prepare them for that. Fifteen years from now, there are going to be jobs that don’t exist today.

We want our kids to be able to think, problem solve, work together, collaborate and be able to communicate.

How many students does the school have?

We’ve got 333 today. We’ve had a cohort a year. This is our fourth cohort. We opened during the pandemic, so we had smaller cohorts than we what we are having now, so we are able to get a little more in. So, we will be about 350 in the next year or two. That’s kind of our sweet spot.

Are they mainly local, or do you get students from other parts of the state?

About 40 percent are outside of 50 miles. For us, local is Decatur, Athens, of course Huntsville and Madison County. We also have local students from Jackson County. We have 120 students who live in the dorm.

How does word get out about the school?

People consume media and news so differently now. Some do it through Facebook. Some do it by watching the 6 o’clock news. Some read your website. We have tried to hit all about it.

We do a lot of social media pushes. We have a pretty good social media presence. But if people aren’t on Facebook, they don’t see that. So, we do traditional media, print. We also use our sports programs to engage and let people know. We have a volleyball team. We have a soccer team, basketball, tennis and swimming. For a lot of people, our sports teams are the face of the school.

Niche ranks the school No. 3 in the state and No. 1 in the area. What do you feel contributed to the ranking?

We have a very clear mission set. We have an incredible staff. We have an incredible culture. For that particular ranking, maybe that was just the right mix of things. We didn’t even know that we were going to be qualified for rankings. We’ve only had one graduating class. So, we thought it would be a couple of more years before we received any kind of ranking.

We were pleased. It was kind of fun to see us up there. We just want to let folks know here we are. For the right student, we might be an option to consider. But we also want people to know that we want to help other schools that have these types of programs.

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