Computer Science for Everyone

To a certain extent, there is only so much that educators can do: Technology is changing quickly and often, making it difficult for teachers to keep up. But Tiffanie Williams, DPA’s director of curriculum and instruction, believes that the school can deal with those challenges by continually adapting its curriculum and teaching practices. “We want our students to not just consume the digital economy, but to also be a part of creating it,” Ashton says.

The idea is to address a shortage of computer-science education in the nation’s capital, as well as income inequality and a lack of gender and racial diversity in tech. D.C.’s Ward 7, where DPA is located, has a median household income of almost $40,000; the median household income for D.C. as a whole is more than $75,000, and on average, software developers make more than double what entire families in Ward 7 earn. Almost 30 percent of the population in Ward 7 lives below the poverty line. And fewer than 20 percent of residents in the ward have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher. In D.C. as a whole, fewer than 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and almost 60 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. DPA’s students are from Wards 7 and 8, which are, respectively, almost 95 percent African American and more than 93 percent African American, according to 2010 data. Not even 3 percent of Google’s workforce is African American.

The school day starts at 7:30 a.m. for the inaugural class of almost 130 sixth-grade students. (Ashton expects to add the seventh and eighth grades in coming years.) During the first hour of school, the students—who teachers call “innovators”—eat breakfast and, starting in October, will experiment regularly with robotics with the help of CodeREV, an organization that inspires kids and schools to code by providing STEM-curriculum resources. At 8:30, students move on to the core curriculum, which includes not only computer science but also math and English language arts, and incorporates computer-based learning. “I like games,” Nasir Holloman, a sixth-grade student, told me at the end of one day, during the school’s first week. “I heard we can create games.”

DPA judges its success on whether its students score a 3 on the AP Computer Science Principles exam in high school, and on whether students get into college. The school has been working with Craig Meister, an independent consultant, to adapt a computer-science curriculum from RePublic Schools, a network of schools in the South that teaches coding skills; Meister previously worked for RePublic as a curriculum designer.

RePublic Schools has developed a four-year computer-science program that is meant to start in fifth grade, but DPA hopes to run that curriculum over the course of three years, starting in the sixth grade. In the first years, students learn about basic platforms: MIT’s Scratch, the animation-based platform, as well as HTML and CSS. Later on, they move to JavaScript, a language used to develop websites. “They’ll create pretty advanced websites,” Meister says. Teachers are encouraged to give specific feedback on, for instance, whether the games they’ve designed run smoothly and lack noticeable glitches. “They’ll have had significantly more background and standard-aligned instruction in order to put them ahead of the typical 10th-grader,” Meister says.

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