by Mary Fuller, Hack the Hood co-founder
On August 28th, Hack the Hood hosted an intimate dinner conversation with donors, staff, and youth. Together they explored the topic of "Bridging the Gap" in tech education. The evening's discussion hit on issues of equity and access, plus some practical notes on how the tech industry can better welcome and prep the next generation of tech stars.
Claire Shorall, Manager of Computer Science at Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) noted that when she started in her role at in 2015, there were only about 200 students taking computer science. Most of those were largely at more affluent schools. There was virtually nothing in Middle school and disparate programs at elementary. Fast forward two years, we now have comprehensive middle school programming in grades 6-9. Nine middle schools now have full-time computer science teachers. All freshmen take a course called Exploring Computer Science" which gives them A-G credit. Sophomores and juniors now have access to AP computer science classes. Claire says next year she hopes to add a capstone with the Peralta Community College District, so students can get college credit. All in, there are now about over 3500 students taking computer science classes.
TOO LITTLE TOO LATE FOR SOME
16X growth in two years is tremendous progress. But there are over 40,000 students at OUSD, so access is far from universal. And many of the youth served now by Hack the Hood have been left out of this progress altogether.
Abel Regelado just started his studies at Berkeley City College, not his dream school UC Berkeley.
"In sophomore year of highschool, I learned about and took part in Hack the Hood, and that's when I fully realized that I will be doing Computer Science or something involved in Engineering and Tech. [In my high school] we didn't have computer science as a class. There wasn't a chance to study CS at a dream school if I didn't have computer science on my transcript. That was a huge barrier. That has me here today at community college. I think more equitable access to computer science programs is necessary and at the earliest age possible."
The lack of Computer Science at Abel's high school prompted him to participate in programs like Hack the Hood, Make School, and Mission Bit. Hack the Hood also connected Abel to scholarships. He participated in a prestigious entrepreneurship camp at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. He was a member of the team that won the prize for the best business plan, and he was given individual honors through their leadership award. He also attended a private coding camp run at Stanford. Abel took what he learned and started a Hack Club at his high school. Two of his youth went on to take part in Hack the Hood's bootcamps. Now that Abel has graduated, his high school has a computer science course that's offered as part of the curriculum. It's a fact he reported to the audience with a wistful frown.
Asked about his aspirations, Abel said: "In four years I want to be graduating from UC Berkeley, if I can get in in a few years. I want to study computer science and engineering. In 4-5 years I see myself supporting students and underrepresented minorities in coding and Computer Science. I also want to be in industry creating cool software and cool tech that makes peoples lives easier."
PARTNERING FOR PATHWAYS
The conversation veered to what we can do about all this. How can our institutions help build build better access? Claire told the guests at the event, that if any of them have masters degrees in Computer Science, Peralta needs instructors. "They can't accommodate all the requests that we have. In fact last year, 9 of the 16 high schools requested CIS 5 (Intro to Computer Science) from the Peraltas and we were only able to get one. It's nothing on the Peraltas. They are understaffed for their students as well." She added: "We are incredibly blessed in Oakland to have community based providers like Hack the Hood amongst others who are giving our students the vocational lens on this work. I would say many of our teachers are in classrooms working in an academic way. There might be a trip to Facebook, and there might be a message, 'Hey, you can build this...' but I don't think students get to see the range of opportunities."
WHAT CAN INDUSTRY DO?
One guest asked what individuals at tech companies could do to help. Panelists shared a variety of ideas, but started with what not to do. Confidence is a prerequisite for anyone who's going to make it in tech. Making a career in the industry seem harder than it is isn't helpful for welcoming underrepresented people to the table. Youth recounted a story of one tech professional telling a group of youth that a PhD was required to even get an internship at the company. "That just isn't helpful," said Don Fountain, a student who went through Hack the Hood's spring bootcamp in 2017 and as a now junior instructor. "I used to think you had to be like a rocket scientist to do this work. Now I know that isn't true." said Don.
Everyone agreed that tech companies could be doing a much better job hiring and training local talent. Claire said: "Oakland seems to be the place that is trying to 'do tech' right, and that is definitely infiltrating into our schools. And students can see that there are opportunities beyond [grade] twelve. We just need receiving and open arms to take them."
The evening was full of good conversation and insights from youth and guests alike, but the key message from the panel was loud and clear. While there may be tons of barriers, they are surmountable. If you open the door to education and make a career in tech feel attainable, these incredible students will take up the challenge.
Thanks for everyone who joined us for a though-provoking evening. If you're interested in getting invitations to future events like this one, please join Hack the Hood as a donor.