computer science for all

Kicking off ‘Computer Science for All,’ city will add AP classes, software programs

New York City’s plan to provide a computer science education to its 1.1 million students will kick off next year in at least 50 schools, which will offer an Advanced Placement-level class or a software engineering program for the first time.

Starting this month, schools can apply to offer the “The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” a one-year course for high schoolers, or a multi-year software engineering program. The programs, which already exist in a few anozen schools across the city, represent the first steps in a larger plan that officials say they will be working on for at least a year.

“This is the first step to build on what we’ve already done,” Debbie Marcus, the education department’s executive director of computer science, said this week.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan to provide computer science in every school by 2025 in an agenda-setting speech last September. To get there, the city will have to find ways to train hundreds of teachers at all grade levels, help schools develop and choose programs and teaching materials, and overcome barriers to securing Internet access and computers.

The city’s first steps will target schools with leaders who say they’re already prepared to meet those challenges.

Applications for both programs ask schools to explain the technology classes they already offer and the experience levels of the prospective instructors. Schools offering the AP program will be expected to do targeted outreach to girls and other underrepresented student groups, the application indicates.

Marcus said the city also wants to make sure the programs reach a broad spectrum of students, and that all schools — from the most struggling to its sought-after specialized schools — will be considered.

As for the two programs the city is focusing on, each represents a different approach to computer science education.

“The Beauty and Joy of Computing” is a one-year course designed to teach the principles in computer science in high schools. Though it’s an advanced course originally created for college freshmen, the curriculum is designed to be accessible to a broad range of students, said Dan Garcia, a teaching professor at UC Berkeley who co-designed the class. Students who take the course should be prepared for a new AP exam being rolled out in 2017.

If the traditional Advanced Placement Computer Science curriculum is like calculus, Garcia said, then “Beauty and Joy” could be compared to pre-calculus.

The city’s Software Engineering Program is more than just one class. It’s a structured sequence of electives for middle and high school students designed to provide a background in programming, robotics, web design, physical computing, and mobile computing. The program launched in 2013 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is now in 18 schools.

Of course, to reach over 1,800 schools, the city will need to do more than expand these existing programs, and find ways to reach younger children Officials said that these are not the only programs that they will unveil next year and that more information will be released this spring. In the meantime, they are working on a “foundational document” that outlines the city’s plans for expanding the program throughout the city.

Marcus said the document could take up to a year and a half to complete, as the city looks at model programs from across the country and consults expert teachers, researchers, and programmers.

“One of the reasons it’s a 10-year initiative is it’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “Not all programs require this level of commitment on the part of teachers and schools. Software engineering is really in-depth — we’re also looking at lower levels of commitment for teachers to understand a specific concept or tool.”

Marcus said the city plans to focus on training teachers in a variety of subjects to teach computer science, instead of recruiting new teachers who specialized in the subject.

That raises a red flag for Maurya Couvares, the co-founder and executive director of ScriptEd, which helps teenagers land technology internships. She said that it will be difficult for classroom teachers to learn the skills necessary to teach a full computer science course without significant professional development.

“I’m interested to see how they will do this,” Couvares said. “Hopefully that they won’t deliver a watered-down version to students.”

Garcia, for one, said his course’s training is anything but. The “Beauty and Joy” training includes two weeks of in-person work and a two-to-four-week online course during the summer.

“This is not at all a lightweight, one-week situation,” Garcia said. “This is a very powerful, deep course.”

In with the new

Newark school board selects new leaders after raucous vote

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Members of the Newark school board in February with Mayor Ras Baraka and former Superintendent Christopher Cerf.

Newark’s school board has new leadership after a vote Tuesday that was disrupted by hecklers claiming the vote was rigged.

Josephine Garcia, a city councilman’s aide whose children attended charter and magnet schools in Newark, was elected as board chairwoman. Dawn Haynes, who works in the mayor’s office and whose children attend Newark district schools, was chosen to be vice chairwoman.

The new leadership, which will oversee the selection of a new district superintendent next month, is taking over just months after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district and returned full authority to the board. Haynes and two other new members who were elected to the board last week — Yambeli Gomez and Asia Norton — were sworn in at Tuesday’s meeting.

Observers have been watching closely to see whether the city’s political leaders would try to influence the elected board now that it has regained control over the schools. In particular, many wonder how much power Mayor Ras Baraka and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos will hold over the board now that all nine members — including the newest three — ran on slates that were chosen and endorsed by the two men, along with the charter-school sector.

Some critics believed that Baraka and Ramos told the board members whom to choose as their new leaders. As soon as voting began at the public meeting Tuesday, some audience members started to boo and shout, “The community should vote!” and “This is Anibal Ramos’ and Ras Baraka’s board!” The shouting, which lasted for more than 20 minutes and at times brought the meeting to a halt, was led by two community activists who unsuccessfully ran in this year’s board race.

The same group of people cheered when board members Leah Owens and Kim Gaddy nominated one another for chair and vice chair, though no other members voted for them. After the meeting, Gaddy suggested that her colleagues had been influenced by their political patrons.

“As opposed to individual board members making that decision, you had politicians making that decision,” she said. “It’s unfortunate.”

An advisor to the mayor said she was not aware of anyone from his office instructing board members how to vote. Ramos’ chief of staff, Samuel Gonzalez, said the members chose their new leaders without any input from the councilman.

“These are nine individuals that were supported by the mayor, by Councilman Ramos and the North Ward Democratic Committee, and by ed reform,” he said, referring to pro-charter school groups. “We’re comfortable with whatever decision was made yesterday.”

The board will now turn its attention to choosing a new superintendent.

A search committee consisting of three board members and four people appointed by the mayor and the state education commissioner have been interviewing candidates. Owens, who is on the committee, said the interviews have concluded and the finalists will soon be presented to the board.

According to a state-created plan to guide the district’s return to local control, the board must vote on the new superintendent by May 31. A leading candidate is Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory.

After Tuesday’s vote, Garcia made brief remarks, which were partly drowned out by shouting. She promised to “be a chair of total inclusion” and to help shepherd the district’s transition back to local control.

“I look forward to working with you all in our ongoing mission to move our district forward,” she said.

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.