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Arkansas Gov. Directs High Schools to Offer Computer Science Classes

By guest blogger Audrey Armitage

In an effort to improve computer science education, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a measure into law this week requiring public high schools and charter schools serving upper grades to offer classes in that subject starting in the 2015-16 school year.

"By passing this bill, Arkansas will become a national leader in computer-science education, and we'll be preparing a workforce that's sure to attract businesses and jobs to our state," the Republican governor said in a statement.

Hutchinson said that the legislation was partially inspired by his granddaughter, who helped develop an app to provide information about Hutchinson, promote events, and fundraise during his campaign.

Students will not be required to take computer science classes in high school under the law; instead, it mandates that courses in that subject be offered and that they count towards the state's math requirement for graduation.

"It's not a mandate," said J.R. Davis, Hutchinson's spokesman. "We just want to provide the opportunity if students want to take it."

Currently, only one in 10 schools nationwide are teaching computer science classes, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Few states have any computer science requirement similar to Arkansas', said Jennifer Dounay of Education Commission of the States, in an e-mail. 

"This is an opportunity for students to learn what coding means and to bring it into the modern workforce," Davis said. To ensure that the new law has the desired effect, there will be a "working task force that continues to look at computer science and coding in Arkansas."

The governor has allocated $5 million of his proposed budget to go towards helping schools implement the new computer science programs. For districts that cannot afford to administer computer science classes in schools, the law will provide funding for online classes to be offered by Virtual Arkansas, an organization formed through a partnership between the Arkansas Department of Education and the Arkansas Education Service Cooperatives to provide digital courses to public schools.

"We will serve school districts that do not have a qualified teacher or the resources locally to offer these new computer science courses," explained Cathi Swan of Virtual Arkansas, in a e-mail.

Although the short time frame presents a challenge to design and develop new classes, Swan said Virtual Arkansas has put together development teams in order to have the classes ready for an August launch. In addition to creating new courses, including an introductory "Essentials of Computer Programming" class, Virtual Arkansas will train teachers and classroom facilitators and provide technical support to those using their content.

The backing of Virtual Arkansas will help ensure that the computer science effort has the support it needs to succeed, Davis said. He said that most Arkansas school districts have computing devices necessary to administer the new courses.

There will be training programs to prepare teachers for the new material, but with much of the devices already in place, Davis is confident about districts' ability to implement the new law. "I don't foresee a lot of huge obstacles," he added. "I just think it makes sense."

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