Kids who code

At GenCyber Boot Camp, Memphis students get lessons in coding — and exposure to hot careers

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Joshua Williams, a student at Central High School, learns about coding with the help of Terricka Muhammed, a teaching assistant at the University of Memphis.

Pushing up his glasses on the bridge of his nose, Joshua Williams focuses on lines of computer code projected onto a wall inside of a University of Memphis lecture hall.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
A simulated program allows campers to use computer coding to control the movements of a virtual cat.

A rising sophomore at Central High School, Williams moves his fingers adroitly across a keyboard to spell out various commands. With each keystroke, he moves a virtual cat back and forth across his computer screen. Cheers erupt around the room as other students complete the same exercise.

Williams is among Memphis students who aren’t resting this summer while schools are on summer break. Taking advantage of free camps like the GenCyber Boot Camp, many are learning the language of computers and developing skills related to programming.

For a second straight summer, the University of Memphis recently hosted two week-long coding camps to show middle and high school students the ropes of coding with Java through games and simulations. Funded jointly by the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation, the GenCyber camps aim to train the next generation of cybersecurity professionals to fill the more than 1 million lucrative jobs open in the growing field, as well as to encourage young people to practice safe online behaviors.

The Memphis camps are among 131 happening this year in 39 states. The University of Memphis was tapped as a host because of the school’s cybersecurity research program through its nationally recognized Center for Information Assurance.

The city also provides GenCyber with a platform for exposing low-income students to a marketable skill that many aren’t developing through their daily public school courses.

Organizers actively sought out students from Shelby County Schools to participate after learning that only three of its schools offer Advanced Placement computer science. Recruiters visited schools and community centers to talk up the camp, eventually drawing about half of their campers from the urban district, said Kelly Freeman, a project assistant.

While GenCyber is focused on cybersecurity and coding for that purpose, Shelby County Schools is trying to get all of its students up to speed with basic computer science skills.

Chief information officer John Williams wants the district’s students eventually to gain coding skills in the lowest grade levels — and especially to reach youngsters who have never been exposed to computer science.

Toward that end, district leaders are working to establish school-by-school guidelines to measure how teachers and students use technology. A survey of students, parents and teachers is in the works to learn “where they think we are and where they think we ought to be going,” he said.

“If we make it a priority, we’ll have the money to do it. I’m pushing the envelope along with our chief of schools to say this is a priority. It’s not an optional thing and it’s not a magic bullet. If we don’t get our kids educated on the use of technology, they will not be prepared for college, career or anything else when they graduate,” Williams said.

Memphis schools may also get an additional assist from the University of Memphis. The school’s Center for Information Assurance is working on a year-round program to dispatch computer science staff to various schools to train local teachers about cybersecurity and computer skills. The idea is for local teachers eventually to integrate cybersecurity practices into their own classroom lessons.

“This is a field that is constantly changing, so if something is one or two years old, it has no value,” said Dipankar Dasgupta, a professor of computer science and the center’s founding director. “Unless people are continuously upgrading their knowledge, it is very difficult to keep up with what is happening.”

"If we don’t get our kids educated on the use of technology, they will not be prepared for college, career or anything else when they graduate."John Williams, SCS chief information officer

The relevance of computer technology has been championed by the two most recent presidential administrations. President Barack Obama called it “a basic skill, right along with the three Rs,” while President Donald Trump has called for additional funding to bolster the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity and counterterrorism efforts.

In Memphis, the GenCyber camps are a small step in the right direction. To make the camps fun and to break down the mechanics of coding, instructors use Greenfoot, a visual program heavy on games and simulations.

Coding lessons are taught by a computer science professor at the university. Campers also hear from guest speakers about online safety and work on a team project to present to a panel of judges at the end of the week.

For Paloma Mirelez, a 15-year-old student at Germantown High School, the camp helped to fuel her interest to become an engineer. Her mother encouraged her to enroll.

“It’s cool because we get to make things,” Mirelez said. “The Greenfoot program makes coding fun.”

tech trouble

New York City continues to lose track of thousands of school computers, audit finds

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
On Wednesday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology.

Thousands of computers and tablets that belong in city schools are either missing or unaccounted for — and the city has failed to create a centralized tracking system despite repeated warnings, according to a new audit from Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Just over 1,800 pieces of technology were missing from eight schools and one administrative office sampled by auditors, and another 3,500 in those nine locations were not sufficiently tracked, roughly 35 percent of the computers and tablets purchased for them.

If that sounds like déjà vu, it should: The findings are similar to a 2014 audit that showed significant amounts of missing technology — lost to theft or poor tracking — among a different sample of schools.

“I’m demanding that the [Department of Education] track these computers and tablets centrally,” Stringer said Wednesday. “I shouldn’t have to come back every two years to explain why this matters.”

Of the computers that were missing in the 2014 audit, the city could now only account for 13 percent of them, Stringer’s office said.

The audit raises questions about whether the education department can cost-effectively manage technology as it plans to expand access to it. Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised every student will have access to computer science education by 2025.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell called the report’s methodology “fundamentally flawed and unreliable,” arguing in part that the comptroller’s office didn’t always use the right inventory list or interview the correct staff. He noted the city is working to improve its inventory management.

The city “will continue to invest in cost-effective solutions that catalog and safeguard technology purchases in the best interests of students, schools and taxpayers,” Mantell added.

Good reads

How one Nashville school uses classic novels to get young students ahead in reading

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Second-grade students read The Magician's Nephew at Nashville Classical Charter School.

For John Little, the hardest part about reading The Magician’s Nephew as a second-grader wasn’t the book’s mid-century British vocabulary, or the fact that the C.S. Lewis classic is on a fifth-grade reading level.

It was the temptation to read ahead of his classmates at Nashville Classical Charter School.

“That would spoil it!” said the 8-year-old, referring to daily group book discussions that he enjoyed last spring at his K-5 school.

At Nashville Classical, reading the classics is foundational to the school’s philosophy on learning to read — and reading to learn.

“For us, it’s important for students to be reading across a variety of genres, a variety of cultures, for students to be reading across a variety of times,” said Charlie Friedman, the school’s founder and leader.

Magician’s Nephew is a really wonderful book,” he added, “because it’s full of all of these phrases that are sort of mid-century British phrases, and it forces students to step out of our time, culture and place and read something that really opens doors and windows to them.”

Nashville Classical was borne out of concern that 75 percent of its neighborhood public school students were behind in reading. Friedman and community activists partnered with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in 2012 to open the charter school with literacy proficiency at its core. It now has about 375 students.

While the world is changing quickly, Nashville Classical leaders believe that reading the classics is one of the best ways to prepare for college and career. Such texts are challenging to students and build their knowledge about geography, history and culture, they say.

The idea is that learning to read goes beyond sounding out words; it’s also about learning about different people, places, and ideas.

But that mindset also has critics. Much of classic literature lacks racial and gender diversity to the point that it’s sometimes characterized as stories about “dead white men,” especially concerning for a school that serves mostly minority students from low-income families.

Friedman says teachers at Nashville Classical draw from a deep well of texts and resources and strive to make the material relevant to their students.

“We really think about it more as stories and ideas that have stood the test of time and those come from a variety of cultures,” he said. “We think it’s really important that our canon represents our students. At the same time, we think that text selection should be a mirror and a window.”

During the first half of the school year, John’s second-grade class used the Core Knowledge curriculum, which was briefly used district-wide in Nashville more than a decade ago before being scrapped because it didn’t align to state tests at the time. The curriculum was designed by American educator and literary critic E.D. Hirsch to address “knowledge gaps,” a challenge that can be particularly acute for low-income children who have less access at home to books and other enriching activities. The second half of the year focused on reading and discussing novels such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Boxcar Children series and Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

The novels for second-graders are selected to be enjoyable reads, but also to introduce students to cultural vocabulary that they might not encounter elsewhere, as well as geographical landmarks far from Tennessee, like Central Park in New York City.

Students are broken into groups based on how well they can do things like read aloud, write out their answers, or read to themselves. To an outside observer, it’s unclear how the students are grouped, or which groups are more advanced, but it’s based on scores from a literacy assessment designed for urban educators by the University of Chicago.

Kathleen Cucci reads "The Magician's Nephew," by C.S. Lewis, to second grade students at Nashville Classical Charter School.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Kathleen Cucci reads aloud to her students during group time.

In John’s group with teacher Kathleen Cucci, students took turns reading aloud to one another, and were urged to read with expression.

“We believe really deeply in the power of reading aloud,” Friedman said. “It’s an opportunity to model joy, and to model reading as a social activity, which is really important to us.”

In another group, teacher Emma Colonna read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing aloud to students who were struggling to comprehend the material after reading it silently to themselves. Then they talk together about what happened.

Still another group was free that day to pick out their own books from nearly 500 volumes in bins lining a classroom wall.

“The purpose is giving autonomy and choice over what they read, and letting them read their favorite authors or series about their favorite topics,” Friedman said. “Reading for pleasure is how you develop that lifelong love for reading.”

Reading, especially in the early grades, is a statewide focus in Tennessee. State tests show that more than half of third- and fourth-graders are behind on reading skills. And on the most recent test known as the Nation’s Report Card, only one-third of Tennessee fourth-graders earned a proficient reading score.

But the state is also making strategic investments through Ready to be Ready, an initiative launched last year through the State Department of Education that highlights many techniques already in use at Nashville Classical. Those include an emphasis on reading aloud and picking material that’s fun for students to read. The goal is to get 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
John Little reads a story at the 2016 kickoff of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Recognized as an exceptional reader, John Little was part of last year’s kickoff event for Read to be Ready. He even read a story to the crowd, which included Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

On average, Nashville Classical students score better than 77 percent of students nationwide on the NWEA/MAP reading test required in many Tennessee districts. And according to to the STEP assessment designed by the University of Chicago, 91 percent of the school’s students read at or above grade level.

The school has some advantages over other Tennessee public schools. Parents have bought into the model and chosen to send their children to the charter school. While about 70 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and about 80 percent are of color, many families who are white and middle income are also choosing Nashville Classical, making it one of the most diverse schools in rapidly gentrifying East Nashville.

Eventually, the school is slated to expand to the eighth grade. And as it grows, literacy, with a focus on canonical novels, will be at its core, says Friedman. Next school year, all Nashville Classical students will take a daily “Great Books” class modeled after the reading discussions in John’s class.

“We want to push a love of reading from the moment they enter kindergarten,” said Colonna. “It’s not something you ever teach explicitly. It’s something we try to have as our culture.”