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An AP Computer Science Principles class at Castlemont High School in Oakland Unified School District. (Photo by: Stefanie Le)

Oakland Unified School District takes on tech, with corporate help

on December 16, 2016

Over the last year and a half, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has been making an effort to deepen its science, technology, engineering and math programs, but so far it has had to depend on donations from corporations to fund much of them.

The district’s efforts to bring so-called STEM education to students have been funded in no small part by grants from Intel and Salesforce, in addition to partnerships with and the Oakland mayor’s office, among others.

According to Claire Shorall, manager of computer science for the district, semiconductor giant Intel funded a $5 million grant for classroom upgrades, computer science teachers and her own salary. Additionally, Salesforce recently announced a $2.5 million grant that would supply professional development, three full-time computer science teachers, and a middle school coordinator of computer science.

Schorall said that the district can’t afford to hire a specialist for every subject. “There are a ton of priorities with funding,” she said. “[District funding] is not a source that I can necessarily rely on.”

The gap between the OUSD’s ambitions and its financial realities shows the challenges of underfunded schools, who want to prepare their students to get jobs in a more technologically-oriented economy but don’t have the money to do so. These partnerships offer a potential solution.

In a survey of its workforce, Google found that 98 percent of its U.S. employees were exposed to computer science before enrolling in college. Additionally, those who studied computer science in college were more likely to have learned about those careers in high school. Internationally, countries like Australia and the United Kingdom include coding as part of their national curricula, although the United States does not.

In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama referred to computer science education for K-12 students as one of the top education priorities for his last year in office. Earlier this year, two of the nation’s largest public school districts, New York City and Los Angeles, both announced plans to expose all of their students to computer science and coding. In his announcement, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio described computer science education for students as “literacy for the 21st century.”

In 2015, the OUSD hired Shorall to become its first manager of computer science. Since then, her office has been restructuring high school class schedules to add computer science and hiring specialized teachers in the subject in middle schools. The district has also established a couple fabrication laboratories, or FabLabs, so students can gain high-tech skills in engineering and design.

“There aren’t too many corollaries for my position elsewhere, so I really cherish the ability to be a thought leader in this space,” said Shorall. “I honestly believe the work is most catalyzed when you have somebody for who this is their sole focus.”

Shorall said OUSD’s partnerships with the tech industry is giving students opportunities in maker education and computer science, mentorships and teacher training.

Still, some of these partnerships can be often ad-hoc, relying on community outreach programs and individual connections between educators and representatives from the tech industry.

Stacey Wang, an advisor in the office of the superintendent at the OUSD, has worked to bring teachers and students to visit tech companies like Autodesk, Clever and Uber, but she said she doesn’t know how long the program will last. “It depends a lot on who knows somebody at some tech company,” said Wang.

A year and a half after beginning to integrate STEM into the curriculum, the school district is still figuring out ways to most effectively and efficiently educate students from kindergarten through high school.

Bernard McCune, deputy chief of the OUSD, hopes that one day, providing an education in science, technology engineering and math career pathways will be just another component of teaching critical thinking and resiliency in schools. “We’re just at the beginning of some of the formation and partnerships of what we have,” he said. “The expectation is that those partnerships will grow and that we will be a leader in the country in STEM education from a quality standpoint.”

To learn more about STEM initiatives in Oakland Unified, follow the links below to read our profiles of several key players, from educators to students:

Claire Shorall, Manager of Computer Science for the OUSD

Danny Beesley, Director of FabLab in Oakland

Alejandra Ibarra, Graduate of Castlemont High School

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