Richmond’s newest and most-watched high school, one that’s focused on computer science and inclusion, is growing at a time when Virginia education officials are expanding the topic across the state.
CodeRVA, a regional, computer-focused magnet school near The Diamond, is adding space as it prepares to nearly double its enrollment after finishing up its first year of operation. The school’s growth comes as educators across the state are training to integrate computer science into the classroom as part of first-of-their kind state mandates.
“We’re influencing the future,” said Michael Bolling, the school’s executive director. “It’s a different type of school that engages them more, is more efficient and prepares them for the future.”
Students from 13 school divisions from across the region attend the school, gaining entrance through a weighted lottery that ensures the school’s population reflects the region’s demographics — in gender, race and socioeconomic status.
In its first year, the year-round school has been closely followed for its missions: computer science-blended learning and intentional diversity.
“It’s hard work to build an entirely new school and it’s hard work to build an inclusive school, so we’re watching that,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who recently co-authored a report on school and housing segregation that recommends a system of regional magnet schools like CodeRVA as a potential long-term solution to school segregation in the region.
Schools in the region are still “separate and continue to be unequal,” the report concluded, with students of color and lower socioeconomic status going to schools with larger class sizes, less qualified teachers and higher rates of teacher turnover, among other things.
The report found that across the Richmond area, white students make up 48 percent of school enrollment, yet 64 percent of white students’ classmates are also white. Black students, who make up 35 percent of enrollment, have 57 percent same-race classmates.
CodeRVA had 93 students in its first year — 51 freshmen and 42 sophomores — with slightly more than 50 percent being white and 57 percent being males, while 45 percent of students at the school qualified for free or reduced meals, a rough barometer of childhood poverty.
That bucks the traditional computer science pipeline. Nationally, nearly four in five students who take the computer science Advanced Placement exam in high school are men and less than 20 percent are students of color, according to code.org, a national nonprofit funded by donations from the likes of Facebook and Microsoft.
Students at CodeRVA work at their own pace on school-provided Chromebooks, while getting small group and one-on-one teaching from what was originally just a handful of teachers.
“It doesn’t look, sound or feel like a regular school,” said Gail Hardinge, the chair of the School Board that oversees CodeRVA and its $1.7 million budget.
Chesterfield County has the most students at CodeRVA, with 29 traveling from the county to 1405 Cummings Drive on days they actually need to be in the school and can’t “work from home.” The county is adding 22 students for next year, about a quarter of the school’s influx of 84 new students to bump its total to 177.
Next year the school will have a 50 percent white population and 54 percent of students will be male. Among the school’s rising ninth graders, 74 percent come from a family with a household income below $75,000.
Demographic data for the incoming class were not immediately available. In the pool of 411 applicants, however, less than 50 percent were white.
Chesterfield’s former superintendent, James Lane, now runs state public education, which is in the midst of implementing first-of-its kind computer science education standards.
In November 2017, the Virginia Board of Education, with some reservations, became the first state in the U.S. to adopt mandatory computer science learning standards. Virginia lawmakers had previously required that all districts must teach “computer science and computational thinking, including computer coding.”
Computer science through eighth grade, according to the new standards, is designed to be addressed within already existing content areas, such as math and science. In higher grades, computer sciences classes are designed as their own electives.
“We have to make sure kids are viable in the next generation of jobs,” said Chris Dovi, the executive director of CodeVA, a Richmond-based nonprofit that promotes computer science in Virginia and trains educators. “It’s important that as this rolls out, it’s equitably available to every teacher for training and student.”
Before the unanimous vote approving the standards, board member Anne Holton voiced her concern with their grade level appropriateness.
“The standards, they seem ambitious to me,” she said. “These are not meant as aspirational standards, they are meant as a mandate that our teachers need to be able to teach.”
CodeVA has trained about 2,000 educators in computer science, Dovi said, with a cohort of 500 people going through training for the next year.
In preparation for the 2019-20 implementation of the standards, educators from across the state converged on the Chesterfield Career & Technical Center this week to learn computer science — from the actions of apps to how to integrate the subject into their teaching.
While the educators learned on one side of the center, the pipeline for CodeRVA engaged in different computer science activities through a third-year event started by a Virginia Commonwealth University alumna.
When Della Sigrest was a senior in high school, she saw that her sister, then a sophomore, wasn’t being allowed to take an extra mathematics course, but was instead told to take a family planning class.
“My parents were able to step in and support her, but not all women have that,” Sigrest said.
Her sister was able to take the extra math class and went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the top engineering schools in the world.
The encounter served as the genesis for Sigrest’s brainchild, Full STEAM Ahead, a one-day conference that brings in middle school girls from across the region and exposes them to computer science. This year’s event, held Thursday, saw 121 students go through eight different tracks, learning everything from knot theory (study of twisted loops) to basic user experience design.
“They’re not going to go into this field and be a robot,” Sigrest said. “You can be creative.”
At CodeRVA, the high school that focuses on the subject year-round, educators have worked to foster a culture of creativity like the one at Full STEAM Ahead.
Once complete, the school’s new space, complete with five classrooms and two breakout rooms, will house a simulated internship center where upperclassmen will work on contract work from local tech apprenticeship company Maxx Potential. The work will have been reset for the students — with the addition of a few more “bugs” for them to fix.
“It’s innovation in education that creates a pipeline of employees that are better prepared for work in the tech field,” said Bolling, the school’s executive director. “It’s so much bigger than coding.”
The school has seen investment not only from school divisions, but from local businesses and the federal government.
In late September, CodeRVA became the first school in Virginia to receive the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The $6 million grant, administered over four years, aims to “assist in the desegregation of public schools by supporting the elimination, reduction and prevention of minority group isolation in elementary and secondary schools with substantial numbers of minority group students.”
The grant has allowed the school to expand its staff from six to 21, among other things.
The diverse cohort has, so far, succeeded academically. While state accountability test scores are reported through students’ home school divisions, the school still tracks its own success.
Every student in Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry passed the state test, the school reported to its board.
“It’s a testament to what public education can do when school divisions put their heads together,” said Hardinge, the board chair. “Our traditions of what classrooms should look like have been thrown out the window and we’re seeing the success.”