Schools with computer science blaze trail ahead of city’s plan


A computer lab of new iMacs await a computer science class at The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology. Photo: Adam Kelsey.

A computer lab of new iMacs await a computer science class at The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology. Photo: Adam Kelsey.

In mid-September, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to bring computer science education to all of the city’s public schools within the next 10 years. Computer science, the study of how computers and their programs are created, is a complex subject, but an integral one as the worldwide economy becomes increasingly digitized.

The initiative, Computer Science for All, will cost $81 million to get off the ground – half of which the city plans to raise from private donors. Education experts and representatives from the technology sector have called it a worthwhile expenditure and believe that such the program will prepare students for the “jobs of the future,” according to the announcement by the mayor’s office.

“Just like reading, writing and arithmetic, computer science is an essential skill,” said de Blasio in a video announcing the program.

Though schools will have a decade to establish elective courses in computer science, some city schools are already teaching the subject. The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology on 49th Street is one of the 23 high schools participating in the Department of Education’s Software Engineering Pilot, a program developed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to test the feasibility of public computer science education. That pilot was launched in the fall of 2013 in 20 schools to serve 1,000 students. De Blasio’s announcement scales its reach to over 1,700 schools and 1 million students.

At Urban Assembly Gateway, Dr. Christa Quint teaches a ninth grade introductory-level class in which students utilize Scratch, a programming language developed by MIT, to gain a basic understanding of how computers interpret instructions to complete various tasks.

“The confidence they gain in this room is one of the first results [of the class],” said Quint. She quickly noticed that tackling the difficult subject matter seemed to make students feel better prepared to face challenges in their other classes.

In an eleventh grade classroom, one student sat at an iMac computer and completed a problem set. While he was at first hesitant to describe his aspirations beyond the course, he leapt to life when his online program confirmed his answers. “We have to translate the integers for the computer,” he said. “When you write Java [the computer] can’t understand the numbers. By changing them, it all works.”

Though the school is only in its fifth year, ninth and tenth graders at Urban Assembly Gateway already outpace their Manhattan peers when it comes to earning enough credits for high school graduation, according to the Department of Education. After two years at the school, 84 percent of Urban Assembly Gateway students are on track to finish on time, compared to 81 percent across the city’s highest achieving borough. This is the case despite the fact that the Urban Assembly website describes most of its students as “low-opportunity youth who are often below grade level in both Math and [English/Language Arts].”

As computer science education expands, the city will need to determine the most useful approach for its large and diverse student body. The subject can be both vocational training meant to prepare students to move directly into lower-level information technology and support jobs following high school, as well as a foundation for the more advanced concepts taught at the university level.

“It all depends on the student,” said Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist and chairman of CSNYC, an organization supporting the city’s efforts. “The key is multiple pathways for different students and different situations.”

“We want to focus on real-world applications for the 12th grade,” said Tim Chen, a colleague of Quint’s at Urban Assembly Gateway. “This may include web development, basic cybersecurity, and mobile app and game development. I’m sure many companies hiring developers look for college degrees though, so we try to push our kids towards college.”

Skeptics of the plan believe it will be difficult to find more instructors like Quint and Chen, who have certifications in mathematics but attend monthly professional development workshops to improve their ability to teach computer science. Given the high level of attrition in the teaching profession to begin with, the costs of ongoing training could be a continuous strain on the budget.

“I worry that the people making these decisions don’t realize what’s involved in covering them,” said Dr. Mark Guzdial, an expert on computer science education at Georgia Tech. “De Blasio’s decision is like an architect’s decision to design a building using a particular kind of material that is hard to make and for which there are no current manufacturers.”

Teaching certificates in computer science are not currently offered by the state of New York, meaning the 5,000 teachers needed to make Computer Science for All a success will have to come from other subjects and be willing to receive additional training.   

At the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies on 17th Street, Aaron Nothnagle teaches two courses: the entry-level Exploring Computer Science, and a more advanced class, Beauty and Joy of Computing. Nothnagle has been teaching for 21 years and led some of the first computer science classes at his former school in Brooklyn on the programming languages Java and C++ in the 1990s.

When the No Child Left Behind Act was passed by Congress in 2001, schools began to emphasize standardized test preparation in traditional courses in order to meet federal requirements. Nothnagle’s school phased out computer science and he returned to the subject that he was originally trained in, mathematics.

NYC Lab School Principal Brooke Jackson said that the school was lucky to find Nothnagle when the position for a computer science teacher opened up.

“Schools do sometimes have difficulty retaining computer science teachers because there is a high demand out there…and schools often cannot pay computer science teachers more because of union requirements,” said Dr. Mark Nelson, the Executive Director of the Computer Science Teachers Association.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a software developer is over $110,000. New York City teachers make an average of $75,000, based on the salary scale negotiated as part of collective bargaining between the city and the United Federation of Teachers, a figure that can’t change without extensive negotiation.

To make resources stretch as far as possible, Quint has employed a teaching strategy known as “flipping.” She records videos of lectures and demonstrates her work using screen-sharing technology. The students are expected to watch the videos and follow along using notes provided by the teacher. Class time is used for completing independent assignments or reviewing prior lessons, if needed.

By flipping her classroom, Quint is able to cater to the needs of a larger group of students who can each work at their own pace with limited oversight. The technique requires a large amount of preparation by the teacher to create materials for students, but could be employed by multiple classes or schools with an instructor present in-person simply to oversee students.

In the meantime, city businesses are waiting eagerly for results. In a statement released during the launch of the Software Engineering Pilot, Mike Nolet, a co-founder of AppNexus, a tech company in the Flatiron neighborhood that distributes online advertising, said, “Hiring programmers and engineers is one of the biggest challenges facing AppNexus today and is critical to our success and growth. We will be hiring [these students] as soon as possible.”