High school students in Manassas Park and Prince William County who are interested in information technology will soon be able to graduate with a certificate in the fast-growing field.

A $243,000 grant from the Northern Virginia Regional Partnership will fund nine "Cisco Local Training Academies," including one in Manassas Park High School that will open this fall.

Two academies, in Stonewall Jackson and Forest Park High schools in Prince William, will open in fall 2000. Other training centers will be based in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax and Loudoun schools. The grant provides about $25,000 for each academy to buy equipment.

Students who successfully complete the two-year program, which is incorporated into the regular high school curriculum, will graduate with a Cisco Certified Networking Associate certificate. Students can continue building their skills at Northern Virginia Community College, which offers a two-year program and a more advanced certificate, the Cisco Certified Networking Professional.

Cisco Systems Inc. is the leading provider of networking systems for the Internet. Successful graduates of the program will be able to design and maintain the hardware and software needed to operate computer networks.

"There is an increasing shortage of high-tech workers, and this program helps address that shortage," said Cisco spokesman Steve Langdon.

Manassas Park recently opened a new high school, and it already had the computer technology needed for the program. Manassas Park Associate Superintendent Ben Kiser hopes to attract 12 to 15 juniors to the program this fall.

"This will certainly expand our offerings," Kiser said. "I have a feeling once it gets started, it'll probably be burgeoning quite a bit."

The Manassas school system "wasn't prepared to take this on at this time," said David Hunn, director of the Northern Virginia Regional Partnership, an organization that promotes high-tech education.

The academies are using an unusual method of instruction. Each student will follow a Web-based curriculum at his or her own pace. The teacher, who also has been trained through the program at Northern Virginia Community College, will serve as a "facilitator."

"It will be increasingly the new model for how students learn many things," Langdon said. "There's a great deal of interactivity with the curriculum."

Students are tested often, and the classroom teacher will be able to see quickly if a student needs extra work in a subject.

Kathleen Kunze, supervisor of vocational and career education for the Prince William school system, said the computer-based form of instruction makes it easier for schools to keep up with fast-changing technology. The school system doesn't have to worry about training teachers on every single change in the information industry.

"This is the wave of vocational education in the future," she said.

In fact, vocational education has changed so much from its roots in "shop" classes that in Fairfax County schools it's called professional and technical studies, said director Terry Fleming. And it's not just for students who have no plans for college, she said.

"For the most part, these kids are planning to continue their education," Fleming said.

Certification programs also are looked on favorably by employers, Fleming believes.

"Even the University of Virginia has started a new certificate program at its Falls Church campus," Fleming said. "They're learning a lot of the things we're teaching the kids at the high school level."