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Opening a Computer Science Charter: Advice From a Pioneering Educator

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Computer science remains a topic of increasing interest in K-12, with states introducing new standards on computer science and the College Board touting the popularity of its new Advanced Placement course on computer science principles—even as districts struggle with the realities of the "computer science for all" call to action.

But what does it take to begin a school with a computer science focus? Education Week chatted with Mashea Ashton, the founder and CEO of Digital Pioneers Academy, a newly opened charter school in the District of Columbia, who shared what she's learned from others who have begun schools with a computer science curriculum.

Located in the Hillcrest neighborhood of the city's Ward 7, the school is approved for grades 6-8 school and Ashton plans in due course to expand that to high school. It has 21 founding staff members, including teachers and school support staff, partnerships with community groups including the East Washington Heights Baptist Church, and a one-to-one program that makes sure each student has a computer to work on every day.

Ashton, a former special education teacher in Williamsburg, Va., as well as in D.C., has held leadership positions at New Leaders, a principal-training group; KIPP, a national network of charter schools; and the Newark Charter Schools Fund in New Jersey.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. 

You have worked in this sector for a while, in Newark, for example. You have seen charters succeed and probably fail. What in your mind are the qualities that lead a new school to succeed?

 The first is having a really strong collaborative partnership with our community—that includes our students, the local surrounding community in terms of schools, friends, stakeholders. The second is, and this does sound a little cliché: It's the people. The members of the founding team, the planning team, the founding staff—those are incredibly essential in terms of being able to execute against the vision. The third thing is that I think we have a vision that students, families, community members, funders are really excited about: preparing students who live east of the Anacostia river for the 21st century. Absent a super-exciting, innovative vision, it would have been really hard to get off the ground

What is your vision for the school?  

It's very simple. Our mission is to develop the next generation of innovators, to prepare our students not just to consume the digital economy but to be part of creating it. We'll be using a rigorous, college-prep curriculum that includes computer science. We believe the 1 million high-paying, high-demand jobs that will go unfilled in the computing industry is an incredible opportunity for students who live east of the Anacostia River, in Wards 7 and 8, who face an education and an opportunity gap, and we want to focus on closing both.

Tell me a little bit about how computer science will be integrated.

The focus on computer science is really about two things: making sure our students have exposure to the technical skills of computer science, or coding; by the end of their first year, they will be making websites and will be beginning to develop apps. In high school we'll get more into the discrete skills to pass the AP Computer Science Principles exam by the time they finish the 10th grade. There may be students who will be able to progress to Computer Science A, maybe by 11th or 12th grade.

But we're also focused on problem-solving, teamworking, collaboration. We want our students to have a love of learning and a love of reading and thinking and communicating thoughtfully.

The third thing, in terms of our focus on computer science, is making sure our students have real world experiences. We'll have three expeditions a year with experts who will come to schools and take our students out, to see how what they're learning connects to real world opportunities.

What kinds of experts?

We would love to have someone who works at Google, or Microsoft, or Facebook—someplace kids really know a lot—to have the programmers come to have lunch with these students and hear their personal and professional experience and how they leverage and use their computer science skills to do things they're passionate and excited about. Those are the kinds of experiences we want to be sure our students have.

Will the focus on computer science be a class? What about other core subjects? 

Our students are required to take computer science as part of the core curriculum. Just like they take math, they'll take a 55-minute computer science class daily.

We have selected curriculum that really aligns to the Common Core State Standards, which is very much focused on problem-solving and deep analytical reading. The truth is that in order to really read code, you have to really have patience and understand the rules of the language, and that just requires a real ability to focus, read critically, and make connections.

What kinds of models did you research? Did you look at any other computer science magnets or charters?

I spent a whole year trying to find an answer to your question and the only one I knew is RePublic Charter School in Nashville, Tenn. They have codified a full curriculum and training module for teachers, so we are partnering with them on our computer science training and approach.

There is a high school in New York, the Academy for Software Engineering, that I was in touch with that helped me inform my thinking, too. They said two things things that stuck out. By having the name "software engineering," it was a definite deterrent to girls—their first class was really skewed in terms of boys. The original name of our school was going to be Code to College, and I changed it. Now we have a 60/40 girls-to-boys ratio.

Also, they tried to identify computer science experts to teach high school students, and what they shared was that it was essentially a disaster because they just didn't have relationship or classroom-management skills. That's what really pushed me to the RePublic Charter School model. They use a non-expert-dependent approach to computer science. The idea is that, if you have a great teacher who can manage class and have relationships with students, we can give you the curriculum and the training to allow the students to learn along with the teachers.

It is mostly project-based, so kids can go at their own pace. Teachers need to understand the end concepts of the lesson but the curriculum goes step by step, so it allows a teacher to give that opportunity for students as early as middle school.

What do you think your biggest challenge will be?

I think this is not specifically about Digital Pioneers, but we are in Ward 7 [an area of Washington with high rates of poverty], and D.C. is a city that has 50 percent of students in charters and 50 percent in traditional public schools, and there is some fair and not-fair pushback on how charters fit into the larger strategies. We are committed to ending that us-versus-them dynamic. We want to partner with anyone who wants to partner with us. We want to learn.

Photo: Ashton greets students at Digital Pioneers Academy. Photo courtesy of CityBridge Foundation.

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