ASCTE is currently midway through its first semester with students in the classrooms. A state-of-the-art campus is currently under construction on Research Park in Huntsville, but for this year and next, the school meets on the campus of Oakwood University.
Created by an act of the state legislature in 2018, ASCTE is a public magnet school for students in Alabama. It offers the opportunity for students to live on campus in dorms, so it can be attended by any high school age student in the state, and tuition is free for all who enroll.
Its school supplies list for the fall included “empty 2-liter bottles for a rocket project.”
Alabama has two institutions similar to ASCTE — the School of Fine Arts in Birmingham and the School of Math and Science in Mobile; they both also have students live on campus and are available for free to Alabamians who satisfy the admission requirements.
However, not one school in the entire nation shares ASCTE’s comprehensive focus on cyber technology and engineering.
The legislative effort in Montgomery to create ASCTE was spearheaded by State Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and strongly supported by Governor Kay Ivey and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. Those three figures all spoke favorably about how the project was coming along at a recent groundbreaking for the new campus.
Matt Massey is the president of the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering. The school’s board of trustees conducted a nationwide search for the right person to fill the job and found Massey right in their backyard. He had been serving since 2014 as superintendent of the Madison County School System.
“This was just different, where you get to start everything from scratch,” Massey said about taking the job at ASCTE, adding that what excited him was getting to “do things like change the way education has been done for the last 150 years.”
“We’re an investment for Alabama in itself; the Alabama students have an opportunity to get an education in K-12 that nobody else in the country has,” Massey said of ASCTE’s role in the state.
Before being elected superintendent in 2014, Massey spent years teaching math in the Madison County School System. That is where he met his wife, Jenny, or in his words, “the English teacher across the hall.” The couple and their three kids live in Huntsville.
Intelligent and welcoming in person, Massey has been granted significant authority to shape the pioneering new high school he leads. Massey has structured the organization after a university. Next to his office sits the dean of learning, who left a place in leadership at Athens State University to join ASCTE. Other staff members have the title “instructor” or “director.”
“We get to determine what are the graduation requirements for our students, and what classes do you have to take,” relayed Massey, who described his school as being “completely independent” of normal state standards but answerable to a 19-person board that approves the curriculum, graduation requirements and other important matters.
The composition of the ASCTE Board of Trustees is laid out in the legislation that created the school, and it includes government officials, university presidents and someone appointed by the governor from each of the state’s seven congressional districts.
Massey says he and his team did not feel like ASCTE “could guarantee quality” via virtual learning options due to its unique curriculum. That cost the school a student from the Black Belt who was admitted but chose not to attend because of COVID-19. Beyond the one student who could not enroll, the pandemic has affected the ability of employees to travel, recruit students and otherwise publicize itself.
As far as the operations of the school year on campus, the pandemic has not been overly disruptive. ASCTE has attentive testing protocols and space to quarantine kids if they get a positive result. All students are required to wear masks when inside, a rule which employees told Yellowhammer has been met with less than expected resistance.
Teachers at ASCTE have been hired from a wide range of backgrounds. The unique requirements of creating courses with no exact template demanded a degree of outside the box thinking, according to Massey, who added that he made a “concerted effort not just to hire teachers out of the local schools,” and ended up with only one instructor from a Huntsville area system.
The head engineering teacher came to the school after 30 years with Boeing, and his equivalent in cybertechnology comes to ASCTE from the Missile Defense Agency. Two other teachers moved from the Montgomery area and suburban Atlanta, respectively.
Yellowhammer News asked one ASCTE instructor, Brad Irish, what it was like to teach a group of kids with such specialized interests and abilities.
“Honestly, they are just like any other kids, they’re just a little more geeky,” he said with affection.
How it is working
For 2020, the school’s first year, there are 70 students enrolled, 30 of whom are boarding on campus. A coronavirus-impacted recruitment process saw about 130 Alabamians apply for the inaugural ASCTE class.
Massey told Yellowhammer that ASCTE staff focused on middle school scholars bowl and honor band competitions for recruiting students, saying that a “grassroots effort” was required for the early days.
The 70 students are split into four teams of 17 or 18 kids, each of which takes all its classes together. ASCTE currently has three teams of 9th graders and one team of 10th graders.
Ninth graders take physics as their first science course at ASCTE, whereas the vast majority of public schools begin with biology, a small example of curricular freedom given to ASCTE.
All classes, in all subjects, “fit in line with the mission of the school,” according to Massey.
ASCTE does not and will not divvy up their kids into advanced level and standard level classes, according to Massey. Leadership wants each pupil to experience the same curriculum and believes their admission criteria selects for a high enough caliber student that separating by ability is not worthwhile.
“We have high expectations for all of them,” Massey explained.
A world history class at ASCTE gives focus to the timeline of important engineering advances across the ages; students may build a miniature trebuchet during a medieval physics enrichment class. English classes focus on professional and technical writing.
“Less poetry and more on writing how an engineer would write,” Massey said in response to a question on what an English course at ASCTE looks like.
Each student at ASCTE is given a laptop when they arrive on campus, a privilege not often enjoyed at the high school level. Conversely, enrollees are also subject to a stricter dress code than most schools: male students are required to wear collared shirts to class and no student is allowed torn or ripped blue jeans, for instance.