Coding: The new literacy?

The city is launching a campaign to bring computer science to all students.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Kahleel Odom, an 8th grader at Ethel Allen Elementary School in North Philadelphia, had one goal in mind: escaping the zombies.

He peered at his Chromebook. The maneuver required several steps, so he could move his Minecraft avatar block by block. But he couldn’t just operate a joystick; he had to type in what to do next.

He was coding.

Kahleel, a friendly 13-year-old, tried to explain: "I had to make sure the iron golem got the zombie so the zombies didn’t get me."

He was among a roomful of students at Ethel Allen participating Wednesday morning in an international hour of code event.

They worked while getting coaching from people such as Matt Stem, the state’s deputy secretary of education, and Nefertiti Stanford, a customer engineer at IBM and a champion mentor with Philly CoderDojo, which works with students mostly after school. The event was part of the District’s participation in Computer Science Education Week.

"We believe that all our students deserve access to robust computer science experiences," Stem said. "The skills they acquire not only prepare them for workforce needs, but create habits of mind that transfer to all areas for success in life."

Kahleel and his schoolmates had to persist by trial and error until they solved the problems before them.

"This is a life skill that we want to see in our future leaders," Stem said.

Later Wednesday, prominent figures in the tech industry and civic and governmental leaders, including Stem, came together to launch the CS4Philly campaign, a wide-ranging partnership "dedicated to equity and access to computer science learning for all children and youth," according to Naomi Housman, the campaign’s director.

"No matter what a student’s future schooling or career track, they will benefit from developing their digital literacy skills and being exposed to the fundamentals of computer science," Superintendent William Hite said at the conference.

Mayor Kenney told the group that last year, the city had signed on to then-President Barack Obama’s "Computer Science for All" initiative and it was striving to be a leader in the effort.

"I firmly believe that our young people should have the opportunity to reach their God-given potential," Kenney said, "and I want to ensure my administration is doing all we can to give them the tools to do that."

He pointed out that, since the early 2000s, fully a quarter of the jobs added in the region were tech jobs.

"This isn’t going to change anytime soon," he said.

Ethel Allen, at 33rd Street and Lehigh Avenue, has a student body that is almost entirely African American and low-income. The school has a computer science teacher, Amrita Desai, and a 6th-grade teacher, Syreeta Thomas, has emerged as the digital learning evangelist there. They both work to infuse technology, problem-solving and coding into every aspect of the curriculum. All students have access to a Chromebook or iPad.

Desai said the coding brings together younger students and older students, as well as those who are proficient readers and those who aren’t. When coding, "they can work on the same website and talk the same language," she said.hous

Thomas grew up in the school’s North Philadelphia neighborhood and attended Ethel Allen herself for a few weeks before her grandmother, who was her guardian, enrolled her in the District’s now-defunct voluntary desegregation program. So, for her elementary years, she attended J. Hampton Moore in the Northeast.

From there she went to Girls’ High. Over the next decade or so, she had four children, enrolled and then left Community College, and returned to CCP for her degree. She was a parent volunteer at Allen, a member of its School Advisory Council, and a classroom assistant while pursuing her teaching degree at Temple University.

As soon as she earned her certification in middle-years science and language arts, principal Stefan Fester-Eberhardt snapped her up.

She still lives in the neighborhood, and her younger children attend the school. Her coding skills are entirely self-taught, and she has made it her mission to infuse coding and digital skills into everyday education.

"I want our students to be producers, not just consumers," she said. And students of all reading levels can find success, she said. When they solve a problem, "they get the feeling that, even if something is difficult, I can figure it out."

Housman, who attended the hour of coding at Ethel Allen before the CS4Philly summit, agrees.

"They’re learning a process of logical thinking," said Housman, a former School District administrator who is also founder and director of the nonprofit Philly STEM Lab.

Other school-based events related to computer science are happening this week. On Tuesday, students at Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences demonstrated for Hite and other dignitaries how they have programmed robots. Districtwide, about 8,000 students participated in the week, all designed to draw attention to efforts to increase access for all students to robust education in technology.

Kahleel said that, before this year, "I didn’t know anything about coding."

But as he worked on escaping the zombies in Minecraft, Stanford of Philly CoderDojo explained: "He’s actually creating the game and writing the program."

Her organization helps make connections for internships and other opportunities in the tech world in underserved communities, making sure that students like Kahleel see others who look like them succeeding in the field.

Coding, she said, "is the new literacy of the 21st century. Kids will need digital literacy to access the digital economy."

Kahleel, who has applied to some of the city’s top high schools, said he does not have a computer at home, but he and all the students at Allen have access to a Chromebook at all times. He has aspirations to be a lawyer, but after his experiences, now he’s thinking about going into computer science (although he confided that he really wants to be an actor).

At first, he said, he was skeptical. He thought coding would be "corny." But he discovered something exciting about learning: He was having fun even as he was frustrated.

That led to a revelation. "I can have fun and be learning at the same time."