Decoding Code

What do yellow squares and ‘Little Bunny Foo Foo’ have to do with computer science? A city workshop explains

PHOTO: Annie Ma
A teacher sets up the yellow tiles for the "walker" and "controller" activity at the city's workshop for computer science in elementary school.

In the center of the room, teachers circled around sheets of yellow paper laid out to form a grid. One volunteered to be the “controller,” another the “walker.” One by one, the controller put blue arrows on the ground. With each new arrow, the walker moved one square that direction. And when the last arrow was placed, the walker flipped over the yellow square she stood on to find a smiley face telling her the pair had reached their goal.

It might not seem like a lesson in computer science, but the walkers and controllers had just demonstrated an algorithm — a “list of steps you can follow to finish a task,” according to one of many hand-made vocabulary posters lining the walls.

Functions, conditionals and bits were among the big computer science concepts that were made simple enough for a kindergartner at a workshop for teachers held Tuesday. The program, part of the city’s Computer Science for All initiative, will include 11 elementary schools in its pilot year.

With the idea that anyone can learn to code, the program, known as the Software Engineering Program Jr., will bring computer science concepts to young students as a foundation for more advanced coding projects they might do later on.

“The goal is to get elementary school kids thinking about computer science, that it’s not something for other people, that it can be for them,” said Alana Aaron, the city’s director of elementary school computer science academics.

At the younger grades, students will mostly work with concepts in so-called “unplugged activities,” ones that Aaron said will get them up and moving. The yellow-and-blue tile exercise, for example, allows students to “program” each other to learn about listing steps to accomplish a task. Another activity on Tuesday had participants clap or cheer depending on what kind of card was drawn — a lesson in conditional statements. And a third used the song “Little Bunny Foo Foo” to teach about functions, pieces of code that represent a given set of steps.

The program received 112 applications for the pilot. The 11 schools selected have done varying levels of work in computer science education, though none have schoolwide programs.

The full Computer Science for All initiative will reach 232 schools in all five boroughs. The schools applying for the program were required to submit plans for outreach to groups traditionally underrepresented in computer science, including female, black and Hispanic students.

“There is a misconception in computer science, in particular, that there are only certain people who really get it,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at Tuesday’s workshop. And then there are “those of us who may not get it but are willing to learn.”

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”