$700,000 grant to fund cybersecurity resources for local students

PHARR — The South Texas College Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence will convert a classroom through a $700,000 grant to expand a lab with special equipment to educate students on cybersecurity.

South Texas College and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District are under a partnership to receive the grant. District students can take classes in cybersecurity through the partnership at the lab and earn a cybersecurity specialist certificate.

The funding is all through the Perkins Reserve Grant, which provides funding and support to improve workforce education, according to the Texas Education Agency.

PSJA ISD is the fiscal agent and leads the cross-sector partnership, according to PSJA Director of Grants James Curts in an email.

“We wanted to make sure we could address the cybersecurity workforce need, but we wanted to do it, taking (in) account of all potential partners … so we can build a pathway that would actually respond to what the workforce is really needing,” Curts said.

Through previous partnerships, PSJA had the resources and space to do so and just needed the additional funding, he said. Valley View and Hidalgo school districts are also participating through the lab, according to the grant.

Curts said an external evaluator will be hired to ensure the partners are compliant and evaluate milestones made for the sake of transparency.

There are similar labs in the Pecan and Technology campuses, but this location will bring about a more convenient measure for district students, cybersecurity program chair Francisco Salinas said. Since it is in its early stages, it may take about a year for it to be fully complete.

The money will go toward buying 24 forensic recovery of evidence devices, or FREDs, he said. Classrooms will use these items to teach students proper cybersecurity measures.

This lab will also be used for training purposes, Salinas said. This can impact U.S. Border Patrol, state troopers and local agencies who can use the center for cybersecurity.

“We want to add cybersecurity as part of the training so they can also benefit from that,” Salinas said.

High school students can earn a cybersecurity specialist certificate through the partnership, he said. This also presents a way for students to continue this field in higher education. The cybersecurity specialist certificate is a 32-hour credit program and the Associate of Applied Science degree is about 60 credit hours, according to STC’s website.

“So they have the opportunity to come to STC and continue and earn their associate’s degree in cybersecurity,” Salinas said.

It’s a growing field with increasing demand, with federal government support initiatives in law enforcement because of its importance in safekeeping data, he said.

“It’s to protect the data, to protect the network, and that’s where we come in and we teach the students how to use this equipment, how to use this software to ensure … (the data) maintains its integrity at all times,” Salinas said.

The partnership also aligns with PSJA’s leadership and toward career-oriented students, Curts said. With many students coming from low-income families, this is another way to move toward higher economic status.

“Our superintendent has been pushing for cybersecurity programs to grow,” Moses Garcia said in a news release, a cybersecurity teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School within the PSJA school district. “If we can get the attention of these students in high school, we can give them a head start on their careers.”