The Oakland Unified School District and nonprofit Code.org announced Wednesday that they are trying to increase diversity in the tech workforce and bring Oakland into the limelight as an emerging tech hub through a partnership that aims to bring computer science to every school in the district over the next two years.
The ambitious plan was unveiled during a packed ceremony at Fremont High School in Oakland, where students learned that their school is receiving a $10,000 grant from Code.org in recognition for its participation in the “Hour of Code” activity that takes place each year during Computer Science Education Week, which is Dec. 7-13 this year.
“I don’t think we need to go to Silicon Valley,” said Oakland Unified Trustee Roseann Torres. “I think we need to bring Silicon Valley to Oakland.”
She said many tech jobs could go unfilled by Americans if students such as those in Oakland Unified don’t start learning computer science. Currently, less than 2 percent of Oakland and San Francisco students are enrolled in computer science courses, according to Oakland Unified.
Last year, Fremont High didn’t have any computer science classes, said Principal Pamela Watson. This year, the school offers two computer science courses, along with an Information Technology course sponsored by Cisco, she said.
Starting early next year, the district plans to identify nearly 100 elementary teachers and 20 middle school and high school teachers who will implement computer science programs in 2016-17. By the second year of the partnership, all schools are expected to offer computer science education.
“Oakland is the first Bay Area school district to partner with Code.org to expand computer science at all grade levels,” said Hadi Partovi, CEO of Code.org. “We are excited for Oakland to join many of the largest school districts in the United States which share a commitment to providing all students with the opportunity to learn computer science and access the best opportunities available to them in the 21st century.”
State Board of Education president Michael Kirst and trustee Trish Williams said they hope to learn from the partnership as California looks to expand computer science education statewide. But Kirst said that won’t be easy due to a teacher shortage and the need for curriculum materials.
“We’re looking to you to help us understand what to do, how to spread it and how to implement it,” Kirst told students. “It’s a systemic change.”
Williams said she became passionate about providing access to computer science to all students after she found out how few girls and students of color take computer courses in high school or major in the field in college.
“It was stunning,” she said, adding that computer science is the “engine of our economy” in California. She noted that computer science jobs are creative, pay well and don’t always require four-year college degrees.
“In particular, I am excited about this partnership in Oakland,” she said. “You are the pioneers in the Bay Area for districtwide implementation.”
Nationwide, only 22 percent of students taking the Advanced Placement Computer Science test are girls, 9 percent are Hispanic and 4 percent are black, according to Code.org, which aims to boost those numbers.
Oakland City Council members Abel Guillen and Annie Campbell Washington said the computer science partnership could help students effect positive changes in the city.
“We have high expectations,” Guillen said. “We need you to be successful because we need Oakland to be successful.”
“You all have special gifts,” Campbell Washington told students, adding that the partnership is also a gift to the district. “I hope you’re going to use those amazing gifts to make something beautiful happen for Oakland, for our community and for our world.”
Before the ceremony, Oakland Unified Superintendent Antwan Wilson said the district expects to consider making computer science a graduation requirement in the future. Student Maria Guzman, 17, said she has enjoyed creating games based on nursery rhymes, as well as videos, in her computer science class this year.
“It got me to think about the commands and problem solving,” she said. “I really like the challenge. That’s really what got me.”
Starting next year, students in high schools participating in the partnership will be able to take a new Advanced Placement course called Computer Science Principles, which has been piloted at 50 campuses across the country, including Oakland Technical High. Lien Diaz, senior director of AP Programs for the College Board, said some other states require students to take computer science to graduate and several allow it to count as a math or science requirement. In California, however, the course is currently counted as an elective.
The Computer Science Principles course, she said, is a more broadly focused course than the AP Computer Science class currently offered in schools, which teaches students to program in Java. The new course, she said, will include computation with data, considering the global impacts of computing, and programming.
Both the College Board and Code.org offer professional development for educators interested in teaching the courses, she said.
Mitch Kapor, of the nonprofit Kapor Center for Social Impact, which is helping to provide computer science opportunities to Oakland students, said the tech world needs Oakland to help diversify its workforce. And Oakland needs tech to bolster its economy.
“The problem,” he said, “is that while genius is evenly distributed by zip code, opportunity is not.”