Mission Nonprofit Hacks Tech’s Achievement Gap

Justin Chen, left, discusses his college plans with Mission Bit volunteer Hurshal Patel.

Gisela Kottmeier got her idea for an app while walking her dog.

“I wondered, why isn’t there a good service to connect dog owners to dog walkers?” So Kottmeier began coding her app.

It’s a familiar story in San Francisco, with one twist: Gisela is an 17 year-old Lowell High School senior.

She’s one of the standouts of Mission Bit, a non-profit started in 2013 to bring computer science education to San Francisco public school students. Students take classes after school and in the summer, taught by volunteers from local tech companies.

Fewer than 5% of the city’s public school students were enrolled in computer science classes, according to the San Francisco Unified School District. Of the nearly 10,000 students who took AP exams in 2014, only 209 took the Computer Science A exam–six of them Latino, and none of them black.

Stevon Cook, CEO of Mission Bit, says that raising those numbers is crucial to closing the achievement gap.

“There are many organizations that offer students exposure [to coding],” Cook says, “but not that many that offer multi-year engagement. We can work with students for two or more years, and we’re free.”

On a recent afternoon, a dozen or so students entered a beaker-filled lab of Mission High School for an intermediate Python class. As with all Mission Bit courses, students spend most of their time on a project. Kottmeier, for example, is working on a service to improve online registration for the city’s public school students.

Hurshal Patel, a software engineer with MemSQL and the course’s instructor, strolled among the students, offering help and advice. “The bureaucracy of the UC’s is a monster,” he told Justin Chen, a senior headed to UCLA. “It’s better to get familiar now.”

Patel got involved in the program after graduating from UC Berkeley, where he studied electrical engineering and lived in co-ops.

“A decision like moving to the city was big for me,” Patel said. “I didn’t want to be part of the problem.”

Though the tech industry has taken heat for its lack of diversity, Patel insists that there’s a home for minority students and women.

For the Mission Bit summer internship program, Patel found a number of women at tech companies to mentor his female students. “It was cool for students to identify with them, and say, ‘I can do this too.’”

Thirty-seven percent of students enrolled in Mission Bit’s 266 Semester Arc program have been female and a little over a quarter are black or Latino.

Cook, a third-generation San Franciscan and past school board candidate, would like to see more of these underrepresented groups in the tech industry. The organization is hiring a program director and development consultant and has visions of scaling nationally.

“Every time I talk about Mission Bit, folks say, ‘When are you coming to Vallejo? When are you coming to Baton Rouge?’ If we’re not in a place to reach the hardest to reach students, I don’t want to be here.”

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