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SF schools are developing computer science curriculum for all grade levels

Laura Dudnick | May 21, 2015 | SF Examiner

Original article

Students in San Francisco may soon learn computer science starting as early as preschool.

The San Francisco Unified School District is exploring the bold and unprecedented curriculum change as part of its Digital District plan, a five-year roadmap released last year that highlights how technology will be woven into the classrooms of public schools. Computer science education includes coding, computer security and databases — all valuable skills in today’s job market.

The move could make the SFUSD potentially the first district in the U.S. to implement a mandatory computer science curriculum for all pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade students. Currently, there are 28 computer science courses offered at 10 high schools, which reach just 5 percent of The City’s high school students. Two middle schools offer computer science electives, impacting less than 1 percent of all sixth- through eighth-grade students. There are no computer science courses taught in elementary schools.

That means that students are not being exposed to computer science at a young age, potentially triggering an interest that could develop into a lucrative career, district officials said.

“We are not seeing a representative group of students take advantage [of computer science],” said Jim Ryan, executive director of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program for the SFUSD. “They don’t get exposure young enough so it becomes an interest of theirs.”

The new curriculum would introduce about 20 hours of computer science education each school year to students in preschool through fifth grade. An example of computer science lessons for elementary school students would be putting together blocks based on conditional statements, as if to mirror code-writing on a computer.

The model for that age group would likely involve one computer science specialist for every two schools. The teacher would spend about an hour a week in each classroom of one school for one semester, then switch to another school for another semester.

“If we’re going to implement this — and implement it in way that it becomes a path of all students no matter what their socioeconomic background — we need to start very young and we need it to be embedded in every childhood experience,” Ryan explained.

Middle school students would start writing a script and building programs in computer science classes, which would be offered in quarter-long courses required of every student. High school computer science classes, which include robotics and game development, would expand to every school and be offered as an elective.

“Not everybody is going to be a professional programmer … but understanding how software is made and how data is stored is really important,” said Art Simon, who has taught computer science at Lowell High School for the past two decades.

Indeed, it is exactly for the life skills and career potential that the SFUSD is pushing for its students to receive computer science and other means of accessing technology.

At an event earlier this month announcing the district’s new partnership with the crowdfunding platform Tilt, in which donors can give directly to schools through one portal, Superintendent Richard Carranza emphasized how students must be ready to compete with others from around the world for jobs in The City.

“If we don’t have the ability to give them the best opportunities to be competitive in a global economy, then what we are doing is denying them equity,” Carranza said.

Between now and 2020 there are going to be 1.4 million new computer science jobs in the country, but only about 400,000 students will graduate with the experience to fill those jobs, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s no secret that many such jobs are located in the Bay Area. “We believe those jobs should be filled by SFUSD students who are currently here and will stay here in The City,” said Ryan.

At least one Board of Education member questioned whether the district is piling on too many course requirements for students, from the more rigorous graduation requirements that went into effect for the class of 2014 to the ethnic studies classes passed by the board this school year.

“We have not looked comprehensively at all the things we’ve required,” said Commissioner Jill Wynns, adding that she supports teaching computer science as long as the lessons do not interfere with other studies.

The district plans to pilot a variation of its computer science classes at a handful of middle schools beginning next fall, an effort that is expected to cost $645,450. If approved by the board, full implementation could begin in the 2016-17 school year.

Page updated on 05/21/15