Computer Science for Everyone

Lola Fadulu/ The Atlantic

A new middle school in Washington, D.C., wants to help bridge the racial and economic gaps in tech.

On the second floor of a brick building on Branch Avenue in Washington, D.C., green and white signs celebrating innovation and professionalism decorate the classrooms of Digital Pioneers Academy, the first computer-science–focused middle school in the nation’s capital. One early afternoon, students at DPA worked on Scratch, an animation-based coding platform, to make a virtual cat move around in a box. When Crystal Bryant, one of the school’s stem teachers, told the students it was time to close their Google Chromebook—class was over—they groaned.

The school’s founder and principal, Mashea Ashton, has almost 20 years of experience teaching at and running charter schools. She grew up in New Jersey but has been in and around D.C. for more than 25 years, partly because her husband is a sixth-generation Washingtonian; he grew up on the street where DPA is located, in D.C.’s Hillcrest neighborhood. Before opening DPA, a charter school, Ashton surveyed more than 200 of the community’s families about what they were looking for in a school.

The survey responses were telling: Ninety percent of the families wanted their children to take a computer-science class. The Hillcrest families were clearly aware of the ways technology is disrupting the economy and of the importance of computer-science education. Walmart, for example, is increasing its number of self-checkouts and has plans to grow a grocery-delivery business. As robots and other forms of automation enter the workplace, the demand for workers who understand how to use technology increases: For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that software-developer jobs will grow by 31 percent from 2016 to 2026.

But computer-science education is lacking across the United States. Just 40 percent of schools in the U.S. teach computer programming; computer-science–focused schools, like DPA, are hard to come by. Some policy makers, including those in the Trump administration, have called for employers to look outside of the traditional education system, recruiting from training programs, for example, for the jobs of the new economy.

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 doublewhat 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.

Of course, curriculum aside, many socioeconomic factors outside of a child’s control, such as the presence of healthy foods and parental involvement, influence that child’s level of preparedness for school. DPA has partnered with the Flamboyan Foundation, a D.C.-based organization that helps schools with community building, to build a home-visit program; each family will have been visited by DPA teachers or staff by November 1. These visits are supposed to give DPA insight into kids’ homes: “Do they have a quiet space to do homework?” Ashton said. “Do they have the resources they need? And if not, we’ll work with families to figure out how to make sure that they have what they need.”

Below the school, on the first floor, is the century-old East Washington Heights Baptist Church. The school and church share a building, and Kip Banks, the church’s pastor, said DPA families will have access to activities and resources ranging from a monthly food bank to parenting courses and seminars. (That said, Ashton and Banks emphasized that there would be “a clear separation of church and state.”) Banks told me in his first-floor office that “one of the biggest responsibilities as a church and as a community is to make certain that our children are doing well.”

Ashton also emphasized the importance of academic and personal rigor—a crucial aspect, she believes, of preparing students for high-level careers. “I would call us ‘high expectations, high empathy,’” she said. As my colleague Isabel Fattal has written, research has shown that later school start times are better for teens’ mental and physical health and academic performance; scientists typically recommend pushing the bell to 8:30 a.m. But Ashton hopes that DPA’s start time of 7:30 will prepare innovators for their future work routines: “We tell our students all the time that if you’re going to be successful … you’re going to have to outwork everybody.”