The 16 students in the Youth Tech Entrepreneurs program at Malden High School in Malden, Mass., can take a computer apart and put it together again. They teach parents how to surf the web. And they patiently explain to teachers how to troubleshoot their PCs.

“I was so illiterate when I came into this program,” said Elizabeth Elliott, 15, a Malden High sophomore. “I know how to use my computer now.”

The Youth Tech Entrepreneurs (YTE) program, which began at Elliott’s school this academic year, is expanding next fall to Concord-Carlisle, Waltham, and Medford high schools, state officials announced Feb. 22.

The budget, which comes from a combination of state Department of Education (ED) and private sector funding, will also expand, from $175,000 this year to $420,000 next fall. Within five years, the state ED hopes to have 2,000 students participating in 25 schools.

The program is designed to teach computer and entrepreneurial skills. This year’s participating students come with a range of academic talents, from kids who are on a vocational track to students who will likely vie for class valedictorian.

Girls make up more than half of Malden’s YTE kids.

Students must apply to the program. Administrators are looking for maturity and motivation, based on application forms the students write and interviews with YTE staffers, said Michael Goldstein, the program’s executive director.

Grades are not a factor in admission, he said.

Students begin the program as sophomores, and are expected to make a three-year commitment. Each school day, the students take a YTE course, and must be willing to give up one Saturday a month and one afternoon a week to work on projects.

Program organizers also arrange summer internships for the students. Some of this year’s group, for example, will spend seven weeks this summer designing a web page for the Malden mayor’s office–and will make about $7.70 an hour each. If the students do well, they could also receive cash bonuses.

Other students will be training their teachers this summer to help them improve their technological base.

Right now, the state’s public schools don’t have nearly enough computer technicians to satisfy the need. For every 700 teachers and students, there is only one computer technician, said David Driscoll, education commissioner. The private sector, by contrast, has a ratio of about 50-to-1.

“As public schools invest more and more in technology, we will need this kind of support and training in our schools–and what better way to provide it than through our students?” Driscoll said at a Feb. 22 news conference.

Joyce Plotkin, executive director of the Massachusetts Software Council, said the industry’s biggest problem is a shortage of technology workers. The YTE program aims to change that.

Helen Choi, a 15-year-old YTE student, said she and her classmates can answer many questions about computers and operating systems. They have built three computers from scratch and have reformatted their school library’s electronic card catalogue.

But don’t ask any of them for a lift downtown, she said. None of the students has a driver’s license yet.

Massachusetts Department of Education