Coding classes grow in Austin’s K-12 schools, but barriers remain

Posted April 8th, 2016

Sometimes, amid the swirling complexity, it’s the simple things that matter.  

When leaders at the Austin Achieve charter school installed a new computer programming course this year, they knew they would hit a few snags along the way. They didn’t realize that something as basic as typing would be one of them.  

“For those (students) that had the technology, they spent more time on their phones than on a keyboard,” said John Armbrust, the school’s executive director.  

So on a recent Tuesday morning, as the first section of ninth graders filed in for their coding class, they pulled out their Chromebooks and started off with a few minutes of typing exercises.  

Armbrust said the school will review its classes so students get more typing instruction in earlier grades. After all, he said, each one of those kids will eventually take the computer programming course; it’s part of the charter school’s core curriculum.  

In that comprehensive approach, Austin Achieve stands alone in Central Texas. While districts and schools throughout the region have added computer coding classes or after-school programs, no other public school requires them of all its students — partly due to a lack of funding, time and qualified teachers.  

An emerging push by Central Texas foundations, nonprofits and business organizations is hoping to change that. They hope to integrate computer science as a foundational part of the K-12 curriculum, alongside math, English and other core subjects.  

The aim isn’t simply to create more programmers — although they’re happy to point to a lack of workers with coding skills. Rather, in a world becoming increasingly digital, they argue that every student should leave high school with a deeper understanding of the media that will influence their everyday lives.  

“Using technology and not being able to code is like knowing how to read and not knowing how to write,” Emily Reid, director of education at Girls Who Code, said during a South by Southwest Interactive panel last month.  

While we expect every student to know how to write, Reid said, we don’t expect them to become professional writers. But a few more professional programmers wouldn’t hurt.  

At current rates, companies in the U.S. will have 1 million more computing jobs than graduates to fill them by 2020, according to a 2014 study by, one of the leading organizations behind efforts to integrate coding into K-12 schools. 

Austin-area business leaders also decry the lack of qualified programmers. About one in five Central Texas job openings, almost 10,000 of them, require technical or programming skills, said Drew Scheberle, senior vice president at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Yet each year, he said, only 2 percent of graduates from area high schools have taken a computer science class.  

The region’s higher education programs don’t close the gap. In 2013, postsecondary institutions in the metro area awarded 1,539 degrees in programs that prepare students for the region’s core tech occupations, according to a report last year from the Austin Technology Council. On average, Austin companies posted more than 6,000 job openings a month for those skills, the report said.  

Still, Austin and Texas as a whole are ahead of the game, said Carol Fletcher, deputy director of the University of Texas Center for STEM Education. The state already has a handful of computer science classes approved as math or foreign language credits, and it has established standards and certifications for many of those courses.  

In Austin, she said, more than half of the area’s schools offered some sort of computer science course during the current school year.  

Yet when considering whether to add a new computer science curriculum, schools here and throughout Texas face the same barriers as districts across the country. Chief among them: too few qualified teachers and too little time in the day.  

“When I start talking to schools about having three hours a week to commit to coding, it’s a giant problem,” said Wes Monroe, the computer science project coordinator at UT’s STEM education center. “The other, tested subjects are their priority.  

“But something has to change somewhere to make this more of a requirement,” Monroe said. “It’s a fundamental skill that everybody needs these days.”

Learning together 

 The Austin Achieve program illustrates both the opportunity and challenge of installing coding classes in the core curriculum.  

Its flexibility as a charter school certainly helps. With longer hours in its school year than traditional public schools, Armbrust said, it didn’t have to replace other core courses to add coding as a requirement.  

RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMANJulia Barraford-Temel teaches her 9th grade class about coding a video game on March 22 at the Austin Achieve Charter School.

Yet like most schools, it didn’t have a resident computer programmer on its faculty, either. Julia Barraford-Temel, who teaches the school’s coding classes, is trained as an English teacher. Like many teachers who are starting to step into computer science classes, she has no former technology training or degree.  

Barraford-Temel teaches a program produced by Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, a Microsoft-supported organization better known as TEALS. It provides volunteers and curriculum support for schools, with the stated goal of putting “computer science in every high school.”  

TEALS was planning to help her cover the cost of more in-depth training this summer. Barraford-Temel said she hopes to get the certification she needs for higher-level computer science courses that Austin Achieve plans to add as it grows.  

In the meantime, she said, she stays about two weeks ahead of her students, going over the curriculum at home and conferring with two Atlanta-based volunteers. All the school’s eighth- and ninth-graders take her classes.  

“We’re graduating more kids through TEALS than most states are,” she said.

Open to changing  

At IDEA Allan in East Austin, Ayush Behere’s midday class feels like it could tip into chaos at any moment.  

Behere teaches another coding course, the RePublic Schools model, which encourages collaboration between students, much like professional programming. In Behere’s class of ninth-graders there’s constant chatter between the pairs of “shoulder partners” seated at each desk.  

Yet Behere keeps the kids engaged throughout, keeping the class loose and fun, but on point.  

“I teach some of the higher end of the academic spectrum at IDEA for my computer science class, so a lot of them have been skating in classes up to now,” he said. “This is the first time they’re really encountering an academic obstacle and hardship. It’s a great learning experience for them.”  

Behere estimates that “maybe 15 percent” of the students have computers at home. But going into the program, he didn’t have much more computer programming experience than they did. His background is in finance, not programming, and he’s a month or two ahead of the students in terms of content and material.  

When you know your subject matter, “you kind of forget the pitfalls kids can fall into,” he said. “Now we’re falling in those pitfalls ourselves, so we can help the students navigate those waters.”  

Those joint learning experiences are especially important for interactions with predominately minority and low-income students, Behere and others said. They can see teachers as a model of learning new skills throughout a lifetime and career.  

“Some teachers feel they can never say ‘I don’t know,’” said Craig Stein, who teaches a RePublic class at Premier High School of North Austin. “I think it’s important as a teacher to show students that I’m always learning new things, too.”

Finding a home  

Proponents of K-12 coding programs readily acknowledge that the languages they teach today might very well be obsolete a few years from now. They say that giving students a basic understanding of how programming works — how to think sequentially and break down a complex problem into simpler steps — will allow them to adapt in the future, regardless of career.  

“We’re preparing our students for careers that possibly haven’t been invented yet,” said Rachel Calabretta, the instructional technology specialist for the Del Valle school district. “We’re trying to build a pathway for our students to be prepared for that.”  

But for computer science to take root in the state’s K-12 schools, it needs to find a consistent home, said Fletcher, the deputy director at UT’s STEM education center. She works with more than a dozen districts in the area, and each one has a different administrator who oversees computer science.  

“Even at TEA (the Texas Education Agency) there’s not anyone that actually oversees computer science,” Fletcher said. “There’s not anyone you can talk to there who really knows computer science and doesn’t have 80 other responsibilities.”  

Fletcher and other K-12 coding proponents are pushing the state to formally categorize computer science classes under the CTE umbrella, which would make them eligible for higher state funding rates.  

They broached the idea with legislators in 2015, but the push came too late in the session. Fletcher said they will bring it up again in 2017, and so far she’s heard nothing but broad support for the idea.  

Fletcher said identifying computer science as a CTE course would’ve cost about $25 million over the current biennium, although state analysts gave it a higher price tag.  

“We have a lot of things in place other states are just catching up with,” Fletcher said, “but we haven’t spent the money to make it reality.”