Above, from left, Juniors Jillian Kusch, Aled Cuda, Jaren Mendelssohn, Nikola Pratte and Eugene Woo will be competing in the upcoming CyberPatriot championship.
North Hollywood Senior High School has secured three of the 12 coveted spots in the finals of the CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, and will send 14 students to the intensely rigorous challenge that tests their knowledge and skills in securing computers and networks from hackers and other cyber threats.
More than 11,000 high school students from 2,200 teams nationwide competed for the 12 coveted slots in the Open High School Division of the National Finals.
“When I heard them announce our names, I couldn’t believe it,” said junior Eugene Woo, who is among this year’s finalists. “I came here as a freshman after I heard that this school won, and I said ‘I want to be a part of that.’ And, now I am.”
Eugene is referring to the 2014 national championship won by North Hollywood High. The school has participated in the competition every year since 2012, and has qualified four times for the national finals.
“Our District has had a great deal of success with CyberPatriots,” said Jay Gehringer, the school’s Advanced Placement computer science teacher and head coach for the teams. “Because of how our students have performed, students have come from all over the city through our magnet program to take part.”
CyberPatriot was created in 2009 by the Air Force Association as a means of grooming future generations of cybersecurity experts. Now in its ninth season, the competition involves a grueling set of online challenges in which students show their skills at protecting computer operating systems and networks in simulated environments. Teams receive scores enabling them to advance through multiple rounds of state and regional level competitions.
The top 12 teams earn an expense-paid trip to Baltimore to complete for the national championship where they vie for national recognition and scholarships.
“While the preliminary rounds of competition involve simulated environments, the nationals are the real thing,” Gehringer said. “We are already practicing with actual network devices so students can show they know how to protect them against experts at compromising their security.”
“These are the red teams,’ explained junior Aled Cuda, who is among the students competing in the finals. “They are graduate students and industry experts who are actually hired by organizations to try and break into their systems to see how secure they are. We get scored on how well we can stop them.”
Gehringer also pointed out that by the time students have completed preparations for the national finals, they have acquired sufficient skills to become certified in Cisco networking systems should they choose to do so.
North Hollywood is not the only L.A. Unified school to make a strong showing at CyberPatriots. This year, Reseda Senior High School is sending a team from its Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) to the finals in the All Services Division, which is open to JROTC, Civil Air Patrol squadrons, and U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps units. There is also a Middle School Division.
As an after school activity, the program has been sponsored at schools across L.A. Unified since 2010 by the District’s Beyond the Bell Branch. Every year since, the DIstrict has sent at least one team to the National Finals.
Beyond the Bell Executive Director Alvaro Cortés says that while winning is great, what really counts is what the program does for students.
“CyberPatriot generates excitement among students about coming to school, staying in school, going to college and planning a career,” he said. “I have seen students join this program and — for the first time — become leaders and apply themselves as never before. As an educator, I could not ask for more.”
For the three teams representing North Hollywood High, it’s really about what’s happening here and now. For each of the 14 students going to Baltimore next month, this will be the first time competing at the national level. Nine of the students are juniors, one is a senior and two are sophomores, a fact that Gehringer says is extraordinary.
“I don’t believe this this school has ever taken a 10th-grader to complete in the National Finals,” he said.
Three of the competitors are girls, which may be indicative of a gradual shift in gender representation in the world of cyber security. Last year, L.A. Unified sent an all-female team to the national finals in the Middle School Division.
Junior Jillian Kusch said she joined CyberPatriots at the urging of her friends.
“At first I just thought it sounded kind of interesting,” she said. “But, now through the course of the competition, I’ve learned about a lot of different possible career paths that have definitely captured my interest.”
Kusch says her main passion is biochemistry. She plans to pursue a career in a firm where she can follow her passions in bio-engineering but also put her cyber security skills to good use.
“In order to protect any company or organization, you need to have a real understanding of what they do and the kinds of problems they face,” Gehringer said. “Imagine if we had cyber security professionals in the school district and they didn’t know anything about education. It’s the same principle everywhere.”
Students pointed to a wide range of interests for future study. While some hope to pursue computer science fields, others are interested in engineering, neuroscience and even journalism.
With their varied interest, the students exhibit a sense of camaraderie, a calm humility and a sense of humor.
“We are all excited to be going to a national competition,” said sophomore Lyna Kim. “Mostly, I think, because we get to skip a few classes while we’re gone.”
To North Hollywood High principal Ricardo Rosales, however, the accomplishments of his students mean more than a field trip back east.
“This is one of the many ways North Hollywood High School is modeling the best of the new generation,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of our CyberPatriot teams. For our students to be national leaders in 21st century cyber defense skills is a source of great inspiration.”