Detroit schools are getting ahead of the program.

Computer science course offerings are expanding rapidly in the city — faster than the rest of the state.

In Detroit, 18 schools offer Advanced Placement computer science, including district and charter schools, according to the College Board, the company that administers the courses and the tests that follow. Three years ago, not a single school in the city offered the AP course. 

Educators say the classes prepare students for the 21st century job market and help them engage more deeply in the digital world. AP classes also offer students the chance to earn valuable college credits before they graduate high school.

As the Detroit district works to boost its enrollment, it is betting that specialized schools — including schools focused on computer science — will attract students. One high school is already focused on cybersecurity, and officials say another focused on digital technologies could be next.

The district’s new emphasis on computer science is part of a nationwide educational shift fueled by a growing demand for computer skills, financial backing from deep-pocketed tech companies, and the fading boundary between students’ lives and the digital realm.

The announcement in 2017 that Amazon intended to build a new headquarters sparked a scramble among states and city governments to distinguish themselves in the eyes of the online retailer. One of the items on Amazon’s wish list was a school system capable of producing the next generation of coders.

“One of the questions that was asked of us was, ‘Does the state have a workforce pipeline that can staff these jobs?’” said Ann-Marie Mapes, an educational technology manager at the Michigan education department. “Many of the jobs of the future and the jobs of now require these kinds of computer science competencies.” 

Since then, a growing number of states have adopted computer science learning standards. In May, Michigan became the 31st state to do so. Three more have since followed suit.

State officials say there is no plan to develop a statewide exam for computer science, putting the discipline in the same category as noncore subjects such as art, health, and music.

That isn’t slowing the expansion of new courses focused on the inner workings of computers, in Detroit or statewide.

Last year, 153 high schools in Michigan offered an AP computer science course. While that’s only 23% of schools that offer AP classes, it’s twice as many as last year.

In Detroit this year, nearly half of all high schools are offering an AP computer science course.

Beth Gonzalez, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Detroit district, said that 352 students in the district are enrolled in AP computing courses this year, more than triple the previous year.

“There are new proficiencies that they need to be equipped with that maybe didn’t exist when I was a student,” Gonzalez said. “We are making a concerted effort at the district level” to expand computer science offerings.

The district, like others across the country, has been helped by funding from tech giants. Through a nonprofit called Code.org, companies including Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are paying to train teachers in computer science and providing free curriculum to schools. Most high school computer science classes in the district are aided by professionals who are volunteer with Microsoft to take time out of their workdays to work with students.

The role of corporations in the shift toward computer science concerns Tom McMillin, a Republican on the Michigan board of education.

“I don’t think schools exist to fulfill the needs of business,” he said. “What are students missing? If they’re going to do computer science, what are they not going to do?”

In some cases, adding a new high school computer science course can take staff away from other core classes such as math, potentially leading to larger class sizes in short-staffed districts. But for the most part, the new state learning standards call for computer science to be integrated into existing science curriculum.

Gonzalez said private funding is “critically important” to the district’s plans for computer science. Several district teachers who began teaching computer science this year attended a free, weeklong Code.org training this summer. The district also uses some federal funds earmarked for teacher training. 

The sessions are open to any high school teacher. Michigan recently stopped requiring teachers to be certified in computer science in order to teach the subject. Now they are only required to obtain short-term training, like the one offered by Code.org.

It is still true that only a tiny fraction of students in Detroit are exposed to computer science.

That could soon change. Gonzalez says the basic principles of computer science will eventually be included in science lessons for all students from third through fifth grade.

Mapes, the state official, said that early exposure to computer science ideas can help erase well-documented race and gender disparities in the field.

“By the time you’ve gotten to high school, it’s really easy for girls and other students to disengage,” she said.

People of color are underrepresented in computer science jobs. Likewise, in Michigan, students of color are disproportionately unlikely to take the AP computer science exam.

Because most students in the Detroit are people of color, the new course offerings could go a long way toward erasing these racial disparities statewide.

Consider Britteny Okorom, now a sophomore computer science major at Harvard University.

In 2018, Okorom took the first AP Computer Science class ever offered at Renaissance High School, an exam high school in Detroit. That class alone more than doubled the number of African-American students who passed the AP exam statewide compared with the previous year.

It also ensured that Okorom could keep pursuing her interest in computers in college.

“I would have been less likely to major in computer science” if not for the high school course, Okorom said. “A lot of kids come in with a lot of background in” computer science. 

Lakeza Ball, who teaches computer science at Henry Ford High School in Detroit, has seen this play out firsthand.

Ball transitioned to teaching after two decades of working in IT. She helped build software that tracked General Motors’ supply chain, wrote code for the company that would later become HP, and helped Blue Cross Blue Shield prepare its computer systems for Y2K.

During those years, she said, she was often the only black woman in the room. Now she’s working to help young Detroiters enter her profession.

“Sometimes I get a little frustrated because our young people want to play, and be on their phones and doing video games. I want them to make the video games.”