It doesn’t take much for Jesus Duran to get his students to pay attention. Young and laid-back, with a scruffy goatee and gray T-shirt, he commands respect from the 18 teens in his class. Most of them were glued to their work before he even opened his mouth.
“Hoo-kay!” Duran bellows after the class bell rings, startling the pupils sitting closest to him. “Open up your HTML files, and let’s get to work.”
Silent but for the clacking of keyboards, the pristine computer lab at Lindblom Academy in Englewood is booted up for Exploring Computer Science, an introductory coding class. The ninth and 10th-graders in the class have already learned the basics of computing and are now building the skeletons—in technical parlance, wireframes—of their own webpages.
Lindblom, a selective-enrollment school with a focus on math and science, isn’t a typical CPS high school. But at the outset of a campaign to make computer science a requirement of the high school core curriculum, administrators hope to use Lindblom’s roll-out of Exploring Computer Science as a template for other schools.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made political hay with the unveiling of “CS4All” in 2013, as they faced criticism for the decision to shut down 50 schools. The goal: bring computer science courses to every high school by 2019. Emanuel doubled-down on the announcement later, declaring that by the end of his second term, every student would need a computer science credit to graduate.
Computer skills are rapidly gaining value as Chicago expands as a mecca for tech startups. In 2012 a new tech company opened in Chicago every 24 hours, The Economist dubbed Chicago “Start-up City” in 2013, and Emanuel has vowed to double the size of the tech sector over the next decade.
“There’s a reason why the starting salary for someone with a four-year computer science degree is $64,000. It’s because there’s a huge demand for people who can code, especially in Chicago,” says Dale Reed, a University of Illinois at Chicago computer science professor.
Seeds planted in 2008
So far, 40 high schools offer at least one computer science class, and CPS officials say the district is on pace to bring them to all 96 high schools by the 2018-19 school year.
Experts tout the benefits of computer science education to teach critical thinking, innovation and technical skills. But as with other new initiatives, there are unanswered questions: Do low-income schools have enough working, up-to-date computers to accommodate the classes? What about training for teachers? Will the new class push other courses aside? Can such an advanced subject be taught to students at every academic level?
Mandating computer science across a district is a thorny endeavor, says Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial. “You really can’t just wave a magic wand and say that CS is required everywhere, because it brings up a lot of issues,” adds Guzdial, who holds a PhD in computer science education. “Across the country we’re seeing that there just aren’t enough teachers who are certified to teach it.”
But Chicago, Guzdial adds, could be an unlikely success story in the field. Indeed, though city leaders have taken ownership of the issue, the seeds were planted for CS4All long before the mayor took office.
In 2008, a handful of CPS teachers joined UIC’s Dale Reed to craft a new curriculum that would include computer science.
“CS has been trying to claw its way up the academic reputation wall, and still has not made it to the point where we can really say ‘This is important, every child should have these skills,’ ” Reed says. “So we have jobs that go unfilled, because there aren’t enough people equipped with that knowledge.”
Meanwhile, Brenda Wilkerson, a software developer, was hired by CPS in 2009 to run the information technology sector of the district’s career and technical education program. Wilkerson was shocked to learn that 85 percent of computer classes actually had little or nothing to do with computer science: The classes were instead focused on mastery of Microsoft Word and Excel.
“I went to my boss and I said we needed a total do-over,” Wilkerson says. “And she said ‘OK, you have two weeks to develop a new program.’ ”
With a jolt of urgency, Wilkerson tracked down Reed and his cohort to hear their ideas. They were fresh off a trip to Los Angeles, where they’d observed a new high school class called Exploring Computer Science. They decided that the course, in which students spend months learning the basics of how computers function before coding is introduced, would be the perfect flagship class in CPS.
During the next two years, Exploring Computer Science was introduced to schools one-by-one. There were setbacks: One former computer science teacher says she left her position because the conditions in her school made teaching the course all but impossible.
“I left because I really felt I wasn’t being supported,” says the teacher, who asked that her name not be used because she is still affiliated with the district. “Computer equipment was being stolen all the time and it was never replaced. [And] CS curricula are different. They’re more discovery-based. I got hit on my reviews because I wasn’t hitting [certain criteria]. If a CS teacher lectures five minutes and then lets kids go explore problems and write code, it doesn’t look like a normal high school classroom.”
It’s hard for teachers and administrators to buy into computer science classes, the teacher adds. “[They’re] constantly trying out big new political initiatives from the mayor, a lot of which don’t pan out,” she says. “At a certain point, we’re sort of initiative-d out.”
Chicago Teachers Union staff coordinator Jackson Potter calls CS4All “another flashy proposal” with little substance. “It goes along with the smoke-and-mirrors nature of this [mayor’s] administration, making a big announcement without a real plan for funding it,” Potter says. “They appeal to people’s natural affinity for technology and innovation at great expense to teachers, who have been dealing with some of the most draconian budget cuts this city has ever seen.”
Wilkerson, however, says the bases are mostly covered when it comes to money. The computer programs used to teach Exploring Computer Science are online and don’t require extra software, so the per-school budget is just under $300 each year. Some inexpensive supplemental materials, such as markers and Lego blocks, are needed. The only other requirement is computers with Internet access.
To train teachers, Code.org has emerged as a powerful ally. Last summer, the non-profit offered professional development courses for 200 teachers, with plans to do the same this summer. Wilkerson is confident that as the campaign builds momentum, more teachers and administrators will climb on board.
“Do we have challenges? Yes. Could we use more money? Yes,” Wilkerson says. “But the wind’s really in our sails right now. Teachers are having a ball learning it, and at this point I really don’t hear a whole lot of nay-sayers.”
Engaging kids with real-world problems
Wilkerson hopes to make more CS classes look like Lindblom’s, where Duran encourages independent thinking.
“If you have a question, ask your partner for help, then ask me,” Duran calls as he strolls from computer to computer. “But if you’re helping someone, remember to let them drive. Leave the coding to them.”
Abisola Olawale, 15, says the interactivity is refreshing. Most of her other classes involve taking notes on lectures.
“It’s more out-of-the-box,” Olawale says. “I can challenge Mr. Duran and ask him why something works the way it does, and he’ll challenge me back and tell me to figure it out for myself.”
Her enthusiasm is common, Duran says.
“I always see kids talking about what they’re doing in class after it’s over, like they’re excited about it,” Duran says. “They’re really engaged. A lot of that is because we try to set them up with real-world scenarios, and we get them to ask why they’re doing everything that they do.”
Computer science courses can benefit students even if they aren’t headed for a career in technology. Jenna Suarez of Code.org points out that programming lessons can be used to put theoretical concepts into practice.
“There’s an intrinsic buy-in when you have kids develop games and puzzles that involve algebraic equations,” says Suarez, who directs Code.org’s Chicago program. “It’s one thing if you teach the distance formula. It’s another thing if you have students plug the distance formula into a program controlling a running character on a screen.”
Coding skills are useful across industries, notes like Lyel Resner, K-12 administrator of the Flatiron School, which trains people in web and mobile development. “The term ‘tech industry’ has become sort of a misnomer, because these days, every industry is a tech industry,” he says. “Education, health care, government, journalism–they’re all transforming, and the people who are technology-literate are the ones who are driving those changes. And we’re getting to the point that those who aren’t are going to be left behind.”
Wilkerson says coding knowledge will give CPS students a gateway to the middle class and an opportunity to participate in the city’s emerging tech sector. As an African-American woman in a field dominated by white men, she views the issue through a social justice lens.
“Everyone is using technology, so why should we leave the creation of something so ubiquitous to such a small subset of the population?” Wilkerson said. “To leave that knowledge and opportunity in so few hands is criminal, when we have so many hands for so many problems.”