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Computer science for all
Classroom volunteer Aimee Menne helps teach one of the only computer science classes currently offered at San Francisco’s Mission High. Credit: Andra Cernavskis

SAN FRANCISCO — Many children in San Francisco do not have regular access to computers in school, let alone computer science classes. The school district is about to change that as it plans to become the first large urban school district in the country to commit itself to exposing every child to computer science starting in pre-kindergarten all the way through 12th grade.

“We are not trying to produce an army of software engineers,” said Bryan Twarek, SFUSD’s computer science coordinator. “We want to open all doors to this industry, and right now those doors aren’t open to everyone.”

In fact, only 10 of San Francisco’s 18 high schools offer any kind of computer science class, with just 5 percent of all high school students enrolled in classes at any level, from introductory to Advanced Placement. Most of the students in that 5 percent are white or Asian males. Of the few hundred students who took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science in 2014, only 22 percent were female, and only 3 percent identified as African American, Latino, or Native American.

3% — percentage of computer science students who were African American, Latino, or Native American who took the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam in San Francisco public schools.

“The students who access [the current classes] do not represent the diverse population that are in those schools,” Twarek said.

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If successfully implemented, San Francisco’s new initiative will be a ground-breaker: According to co-founder Hadi Partovi, whose national non-profit has introduced computer programming in over 70 of the largest school districts in the country, the urban district that has come closest to accomplishing this level of commitment to computer science is Chicago, which made the subject a mandatory graduation requirement at the high school level.

“Before this announcement, I would say San Francisco was behind the rest of the country in a field where you think it would be ahead,” said Partovi. “Now it’s ahead.”

“Before this announcement, I would say San Francisco was behind the rest of the country in a field where you think it would be ahead.”

But, before San Francisco can take the lead, it has a lot of hurdles to cross.

First, it has to finish designing the curriculum. If done the way Twarek plans, computer science will become like any other mandatory subject, but there is a lot of work that will need to go into making this a reality, he said.

“We have to pioneer a lot of the systems and curriculum to do this” Twarek said.

According to Twarek, most of the information on how to build a computer science curriculum focuses on practices at the high school level, which is when most districts around the country introduce the subject, if at all. The district will have to rely heavily on its own initiative in order to create a thorough and exhaustive set of standards for the elementary and preschool levels, something about which Twarek has found little information.

For the younger grades, the main concern of both SFUSD officials and outside observers is that students’ learning isn’t over-saturated with gadgets and technology but also involves activities requiring in-depth thought.

12 — number of San Francisco K-8 and middle schools that will have computer science added to their curriculums in the fall of 2015.

“We want to make sure that when people are talking about computer science education, they are talking about critical thinking and computational learning and not just bringing fancy technology into the classroom,” said Julie Flapan, the executive director of Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools (ACCESS).

While not involved in creating SFUSD’s curriculum, ACCESS works to bring computer science education to traditionally underserved student populations in California. Flapan said that based on what she’s read about the planned SFUSD program, San Francisco leaders seem to understand the difference between just teaching students how to use technology and teaching them how to use computer programming as a form of problem solving.

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In addition to curriculum design, the new program will need more funding if it is to expand. Despite San Francisco’s proximity to wealthy Silicon Valley, 54 percent of students in San Francisco’s public schools received free or reduced lunch in the 2014-15 school year and many schools do not have enough equipment to sustain a computer science curriculum. Only two of the city’s middle schools now offer an elective course in the subject.

“We are not trying to produce an army of software engineers.”

The initial phase of the pilot year will rely heavily on outside support and will include only 12 of the district’s K-8 and middle schools. Salesforce Foundation, the philanthropic arm of a local software company that has already donated money and resources to improving access to technology in most of San Francisco’s middle schools, is a major backer of the middle school program.

“We expect to fund the pilot primarily through external sources, and we continue to seek additional sources so that we can pilot in the elementary grades,” Twarek said.

SFUSD has agreed to pick up some program costs in the inaugural year, including teacher training.

Twarek anticipates that the district will introduce the curriculum to elementary schools and preschools over the course of the next school year, with the goal of having a computer science curriculum in every school by 2016-2017.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California schools.

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