A Tale of Two Coding Programs

By Liana Loewus — December 10, 2015 4 min read
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Schools around the country are marking Computer Science Education Week, taking place Dec. 7-13, by hosting coding sessions and raising awareness about the need for computer programming skills.

As I’ve written, computer science has been gaining ground in K-12 schools for years now. Three major districts—Chicago, New York, and San Francisco—have committed to expanding their computer science courses to make them available to all students.

This week, I published a story about a K-8 school district in Arizona that’s already got every single student taking coding classes. The 5,600 Avondale Elementary school district, which serves mostly low-income and Hispanic students, turned all of its technology teachers into coding teachers last year, and now even kindergartners are writing lines of code.

Down the Road, a Different Story

The part of the story I didn’t get to tell was what happened to a coding program just 20 miles away.

Before he helped implement coding as the tech coordinator in Avondale, Grant Smith worked as a computer programming teacher at C.O. Greenfield, a 4th through 8th grade school in south Phoenix. The school serves mainly Hispanic and low-income students, much like those in the Avondale district.

Under the direction of Stuart Starky, the Phoenix school’s principal, Smith started a coding program—one of the first such programs with elementary and middle school students in Arizona. To fund the program, Starky let go the school’s only art teacher.

And then, after Smith left at the end of the year, Greenfield’s coding program all but died.

Starky says he hasn’t been able to find anyone to fill the position. “We pay $39,000 a year,” he said in an interview. “For a kid who’s completely literate in software programming—yeah, it’s hard to find people.” Now students in the district can go into the media center every so often and code on their own, but there’s no coding teacher or formal instruction. (There’s also still no art teacher.)

Different Views on Teacher Training

In Avondale, the administration is adamant that teachers can be trained to lead self-paced, online coding classes, even if they aren’t proficient coders themselves. But Starky maintains that to teach it someone at least needs to know the basics.

“You can’t just shift from ‘I’m a science teacher’ to ‘I’m going to do coding,’” he said. “You need to have a sufficient amount of understanding and purpose around code to motivate and encourage kids with it.”

Greenfield was the only school in the 12,000-student Roosevelt district doing coding when Smith was there. Avondale, on the other hand, has a series of champions for coding—including the district leadership. The teachers who trained with Smith, and continue to learn coding during half-day professional development sessions each Wednesday, have also become advocates for the program.

That combination of top-level support, districtwide implementation, and embedded training have made the program sustainable—at least so far. “This is part of the curriculum, it’s part of what we do,” said Betsy Hargrove, the Avondale superintendent.

Coding on a Broader Scale

Smith left Avondale after a year and moved to Park City, Utah, for a new job, which it turns out is making a dent in computer science education on an even broader scale.

He now works for Ari Ioannides, the founder and CEO of the technology company Emerald Data Solutions, which helps governing boards go paperless. Ioannides learned to code through a pilot program in the Atlanta public schools in the 1970s. As he told KPCW this summer, he’s decided to invest a half-million dollars in bringing coding to more inner-city elementary schools, and he hired Smith to run the project.

Ioannides recently launched a grant program in which districts can apply to have Smith come work with them for a semester or year to help implement coding classes. (The first round of applications is due Dec. 31.)

When I visited Avondale last month, Ioannides sent Smith back to come meet me and see how his old district was doing. Two coding teachers are now leading the teacher professional development that he’d been running. The curriculum is still in place, and other than some of the typical behavior issues in the computer labs, classes are running quite well. Not much has changed, he told me.

The same hasn’t been true down the road in Greenfield since Smith left. “There’s nothing like the program [Smith] was running for us, which was the program I envisioned,” said Starky. “When we start staffing for next year, we’ll look to see if it’s something we can fill. ... We definitely want to get kids re-engaged.”

Image: Nancy Navarro, a technology teacher, helps 3rd graders Melani Garcia, left, and Leah Rosales, learn coding at Michael Anderson School. Many of her top students are girls, contrary to a recent nationwide survey that found girls are less confident than boys in their ability to learn computer science. —Nick Cote for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.