Charter Pulse

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TENNESSEE: New Nashville Academy of Computer Science puts focus on building tech talent

technoWhen staff and board members of high-scoring charter school Nashville Prep began discussing plans for a new middle school, they asked how they could design a school most relevant to kids seeking to achieve in the 21st century.

Technology was the obvious answer.

In August, Nashville Prep Executive Director Ravi Gupta will open the doors to Nashville Academy of Computer Science, a charter school that includes computer programming as a part of its everyday core curriculum. It is part of a growing movement across the nation to create schools that empower students with skills in a high-demand profession while addressing a shortage of those with computer science expertise.

“We learned a lot in early years at Nashville Prep about what our students are capable of achieving,” Gupta said. “It was very apparent to us that our students were capable of doing amazing things in computer science and coding and that they deserved that opportunity.”

The school, to be located on Tennessee State University’s Avon Williams Campus, will open to 120 fifth-grade students this fall and expand through the eighth grade by 2017. The schedule includes at least one hour of computer science each day, similar to reading, math and other core classes. By the time students graduate, they should be proficient in at least one programming language, such as JavaScript.

To lead the computer science school, Gupta has built an advisory council of Nashvilletech industry leaders that includes Nashville Prep board member and Zeumo founder Hal Cato, FLO {thinkery} founder Mark Montgomery, Nashville Software School founder John Wark, StudioNow cofounder Adam Solesby and software developers Jason Orendorff, Eliza Brock and Ben Gotow.

With more than 800 open tech jobs in Nashville and the average salary for programmers close to $80,000, the school aims to put students, many from low-income families, on an early path to a thriving sector. The need for skilled tech workers and the opportunities for students prompted President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address last month to applaud schools, including high schools in Tennessee, that are better preparing students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

In the minority

Several schools around the U.S. have added emphasis on STEM courses. Metro high schools offer STEM tracks within their academies, and STEM Preparatory Academy, a Nashville charter middle school, opened in 2011. Still, schools that offer programming are in the minority, with 1 out of 10 schools providing such courses nationally, according to Code.Org.

In the past two years there has been an increase in schools adding programming classes to their core curriculum, and Nashville Academy of Computer Science is on “the cutting edge” of the movement, said Seth Andrew, senior adviser in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.

“A technological focus is both necessary in terms of economic competitiveness for the country and because the educational transformation it represents is profound,” Andrew said. “Kids need to have actual skills they can use in the marketplace. There are very few ways you can basically guarantee economic success. Learning to code is one of them.”

Nashville Academy of Computer Science has begun working with San Francisco-based CodeHS, a startup founded by Stanford University teaching assistants that teaches programming to high school students. The curriculum is modeled after college introductory classes but tailored to teaching younger students. Nashville Prep has been piloting the course, and Gupta said the online program complements teachers’ instruction of basic coding skills and students’ collaborative work on projects.

Gupta’s long-term plans include a Nashville charter high school that will allow students to delve deeper into computer science, through either through more extensive programming skills or related directions, such as gaming or Web design.

With a shortage of tech skills nationally, finding programming talent for classrooms is a challenge, especially when companies can offer six-digit salaries and are struggling to fill positions, Gupta said. Rather than competing with corporations for that talent, academy teachers will learn to code ahead of and alongside their students if they lack a programming background. Every coding teacher will complete the entire coding curriculum ahead of the school year and participate in a series of training sessions.

“Even in Silicon Valley, technology companies are having a hard time finding coders,” Gupta said. “We either throw up our hands and say (teaching programming) is not possible, or we can fundamentally transform the classroom experience and the roles of teachers.”

‘Create the future’

The computer science focus will help students develop coding skills, but it also overlaps with other core subjects, said Allison Deissler, principal-in-residence of the academy. She used the example of students creating a software program that calculates miles per hour traveled. In addition to mastering the code, they think through the steps of how to solve the equation.

“Equally as important as students developing the physical skills of programming, computer science teaches critical thinking and problem solving in a way that’s pretty unparalleled,” Deissler said.

Gupta has been encouraged by the response to the school from those in the software community, as well as interested parents. The school received close to 190 applications for the inaugural class.

“Right now there is a lot of talk about how the wealth disparities in this country are so extreme and that economical mobility in the U.S. is really, really low,” Gupta said. “The message that resonates with our parents is the fact that coding offers an opportunity to go from employee to employer, to be a creator of the future. Our families want their kids to create the future, not just live in it.”

The message resonated with parent and software developer Felix Fuentes, whose 10-year-old son is interested in gaming and programming. After dropping out of high school as a teen, Fuentes eventually studied computer science in college in his late 20s. Fourteen years ago, his starting salary exceeded $90,000, and he now works as a private contractor for Nashville health care companies, receiving calls from recruiters each week.

“When he got accepted, it was just a no-brainer,” Fuentes said of his son, also named Felix. “I don’t want him to have the struggles I did growing up. … Starting at the age of 10, by the time he’s 18 years old, I know that he won’t have any problems with his future if he studies computer science.”

Source: The Tennessian – by Jamie McGee

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2014 by in Charter Schools, States, Tennessee.

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