Students Hack into Tech with Mission Coding Course

Student's participating in a five-week free coding course hosted at Mission Economic Development Agency on 19th and Mission Streets. Photo by Laura Waxmann

As the San Francisco Unified School District works to implement a mandated computer science curriculum into classrooms citywide, local organizations are looking to address what they say is a serious shortcoming in the city’s classroom-to-career pipeline for tech.

Trends in the tech industry indicate that some 1.4 million computing jobs will become available by 2020, yet less than six percent of the 16,000 students enrolled in San Francisco’s public high schools are enrolled in computer science courses, according to Stevon Cook, CEO of Mission Bit. The nonprofit offers semester-long coding courses aimed at eliminating the technical divide in low-income communities.

In the Mission, 46 percent of households are not connected to the internet, according to recent data collected by Mission Promise Neighborhood.

“I didn’t have a computer at home until I was 15,” said 18-year-old Elias Pae, a senior at John O’Connell High School. “At first it wasn’t a problem, but now you can’t really live without it.”

“There is a sense of urgency around these jobs,” Cook said. “There’s a huge affordability and income inequality issue in the city and these jobs are high paying  — putting them in the hands of the communities that we serve gives them an opportunity to earn those salaries and afford to live in this city as well.”

Last June, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to expand computer science education across elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Since then, the district has integrated computer science education in grades 6-8, and has seen enrollment in these courses increase from under 1 percent to 31 percent through the year, said Bryan Twarek, computer science coordinator for the school district’s educational technology department.

At the high school level, computer science classes are not yet a mandatory part of the curriculum, but is offered as electives.

“All groups are asking for computer science education families, students, administrators,” said Twarek. “The question of how to teach it is what we are working on.”

A major hurdle, he explained, is finding qualified instructors to teach the subject.

“High school computer science teachers need to have a fuller understanding of computer science than computer science teachers of earlier grades,” said Twarek, explaining that while the school district has had some success in developing middle school teachers with limited computer science backgrounds through week-long summer trainings, monthly professional learning community meetings, and on-site coaching and support— the same model may not be sustainable at the high school level, where more content knowledge and expertise is required.

“We are seeking creative ways for professional development at the high school level,” said Twarek.

“It’s tough because people that really know how to do this stuff  — the average starting salary for a software engineer is $85,000, and for a teacher it’s $47,000,” Cook agreed. “So you are going to take somebody who has the skills and have them take a teaching job? That’s a hard gap to fill.”

That’s where nonprofits are stepping in. Starting this week, a dozen high school and college students from low-income communities have embarked on a five-week coding crash course at MEDA’s computer lab . The free “hack class” is three hours long, Monday through Thursday, and is the first of its kind in the Mission District.

Cook said that students with no prior knowledge of or opportunity to learn coding were encouraged to apply to the program, adding that the only requirement for enrollment in the course is “enthusiasm.”

Giselle Aguoyo, a senior at John O’Connell, said her ultimate goal is to learn how to animate she, like Elias Pae, is taking the hack course because she was told that learning code would be useful for graphic design.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been exposed to coding, and I was skeptical at first because I was told that computer science is challenging,” said Aguoyo. “It’s not what I expected at all, it’s fun. I wish this was part of the curriculum in my school. We used to have it but then I was taken out because I had to take a mandatory health class instead. By the time I was available to do an extra class, we didn’t have it anymore.”

The course stems from a collaboration between the SoMa-based coding school Hack Reactor and Mission Bit. The goal is to make a career in tech a possibility for those students who want it, but do not have the means or resources to pursue it on their own.

“I feel that collaborations like this one…not only will make the program stronger, [they] will help us to develop the best practice for other programs in the city to pay attention to, as well as other communities,” said Leo Sosa, Technology Training Coordinator at MEDA.

The diverse group of students came with varying backgrounds and experience levels in technology— some had already received formal information technology and repair training as “Mission Techies,” a program under Sosa’s leadership in which participants aged 17-24 receive training in the essentials of IT, hardware, software, and tech support. Most had no previous coding experience, but were thrilled by the opportunity to learn.

“Coding and CS courses should be a requirement to graduate as a senior. Its just the way the job market is going now,” said 19-year-old George Ortiz, a computer science major at the City College of San Francisco, who participated in the course. “If you are getting at least exposed to it, even if you don’t like it, you have something to go into college with thinking ‘Well I did a little bit of this, maybe it could be a career.’ At the least, it’s an option.”

“In Mission Techies, we have 16 kids in the program and out of those 16, only two have seen the inside of a computer before,” said Sosa. “That’s a 80-85 percent, complete disconnect from the tech world.”

This disconnect is also reflected in public school education in terms of learning code and software programming skills that could land graduating high school and college students jobs with starting wages of $105,000, according to John Ko, Program Manager at Hack Reactor.

“The first thing we have to do is bring awareness to the community that this is a real option to you, rather than going to a retail job or something like that,” said Ko. “The demand for talent is shown in the tech salaries.”

While coding courses are available for adults at Hack Reactor, enrollment fees of $17,000 and the three-month time commitment that price tag buys often make these courses inaccessible to middle-class workers looking towards the tech industry for a career change, or high school students seeking to learn to code on their own.  

“The people that enroll sort of look like the tech industry,” said Cook. “They are people that have the money, have been thinking about it, can take off work. Being able to engage low-income communities in an opportunity like this is a bit more difficult.”

Because the implementation of the computer science curriculum is rolling out slowly, many students graduating in the next few years, like Aguoyo, may not have the computer science foundation necessary to access the high wage jobs that are available.

“(The school district) just needs to focus on working with the high schools. Ideally, we would want young people to be ready three, four years from now,” said Sosa, adding that partnering with organizations like Hack Reactor and Mission Bit could be a solution.
“We need to work with these kinds of partners to potentially find subsidized employment dollars within the mayor’s office to pay those instructors to come and teach [at public schools],” said Sosa. “Those courses now need to be implemented as a credit-type of approach.”

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One Comment

  1. Leo Sosa

    Thanks for this powerful story Laura!

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