Kids who code

At GenCyber Boot Camp, Memphis students get lessons in coding — and exposure to hot careers

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Joshua Williams, a student at Central High School, learns about coding with the help of Terricka Muhammed, a teaching assistant at the University of Memphis.

Pushing up his glasses on the bridge of his nose, Joshua Williams focuses on lines of computer code projected onto a wall inside of a University of Memphis lecture hall.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
A simulated program allows campers to use computer coding to control the movements of a virtual cat.

A rising sophomore at Central High School, Williams moves his fingers adroitly across a keyboard to spell out various commands. With each keystroke, he moves a virtual cat back and forth across his computer screen. Cheers erupt around the room as other students complete the same exercise.

Williams is among Memphis students who aren’t resting this summer while schools are on summer break. Taking advantage of free camps like the GenCyber Boot Camp, many are learning the language of computers and developing skills related to programming.

For a second straight summer, the University of Memphis recently hosted two week-long coding camps to show middle and high school students the ropes of coding with Java through games and simulations. Funded jointly by the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation, the GenCyber camps aim to train the next generation of cybersecurity professionals to fill the more than 1 million lucrative jobs open in the growing field, as well as to encourage young people to practice safe online behaviors.

The Memphis camps are among 131 happening this year in 39 states. The University of Memphis was tapped as a host because of the school’s cybersecurity research program through its nationally recognized Center for Information Assurance.

The city also provides GenCyber with a platform for exposing low-income students to a marketable skill that many aren’t developing through their daily public school courses.

Organizers actively sought out students from Shelby County Schools to participate after learning that only three of its schools offer Advanced Placement computer science. Recruiters visited schools and community centers to talk up the camp, eventually drawing about half of their campers from the urban district, said Kelly Freeman, a project assistant.

While GenCyber is focused on cybersecurity and coding for that purpose, Shelby County Schools is trying to get all of its students up to speed with basic computer science skills.

Chief information officer John Williams wants the district’s students eventually to gain coding skills in the lowest grade levels — and especially to reach youngsters who have never been exposed to computer science.

Toward that end, district leaders are working to establish school-by-school guidelines to measure how teachers and students use technology. A survey of students, parents and teachers is in the works to learn “where they think we are and where they think we ought to be going,” he said.

“If we make it a priority, we’ll have the money to do it. I’m pushing the envelope along with our chief of schools to say this is a priority. It’s not an optional thing and it’s not a magic bullet. If we don’t get our kids educated on the use of technology, they will not be prepared for college, career or anything else when they graduate,” Williams said.

Memphis schools may also get an additional assist from the University of Memphis. The school’s Center for Information Assurance is working on a year-round program to dispatch computer science staff to various schools to train local teachers about cybersecurity and computer skills. The idea is for local teachers eventually to integrate cybersecurity practices into their own classroom lessons.

“This is a field that is constantly changing, so if something is one or two years old, it has no value,” said Dipankar Dasgupta, a professor of computer science and the center’s founding director. “Unless people are continuously upgrading their knowledge, it is very difficult to keep up with what is happening.”

"If we don’t get our kids educated on the use of technology, they will not be prepared for college, career or anything else when they graduate."John Williams, SCS chief information officer

The relevance of computer technology has been championed by the two most recent presidential administrations. President Barack Obama called it “a basic skill, right along with the three Rs,” while President Donald Trump has called for additional funding to bolster the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity and counterterrorism efforts.

In Memphis, the GenCyber camps are a small step in the right direction. To make the camps fun and to break down the mechanics of coding, instructors use Greenfoot, a visual program heavy on games and simulations.

Coding lessons are taught by a computer science professor at the university. Campers also hear from guest speakers about online safety and work on a team project to present to a panel of judges at the end of the week.

For Paloma Mirelez, a 15-year-old student at Germantown High School, the camp helped to fuel her interest to become an engineer. Her mother encouraged her to enroll.

“It’s cool because we get to make things,” Mirelez said. “The Greenfoot program makes coding fun.”

preliminary numbers

New York City’s (unofficial) graduation rate hits 74 percent, preliminary figures show

New York City’s graduation rate hit a record 74 percent in 2017, according to preliminary figures published on the education department website this week, a slight increase over the previous year.

The numbers continue an upward trend for the city — where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005 — and are in line with previous increases under Mayor Bill de Blasio. This year’s unofficial rate is 1 percentage point higher than the 2016 preliminary rate, and 1.4 points higher than last year’s official rate.

City officials cautioned that the state has not yet verified the figures, which are still subject to change. State officials said they will not release official graduation rates until 2018. Last year, the city’s preliminary graduation rate was 73 percent, while the official rate was 72.6.

Graduation rates are widely considered to be an indicator of the school system’s overall health. Their upward trajectory — even if less steep than previous years — is a good sign for the de Blasio administration.

“This year’s number will be a record high,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “That’s something the administration can crow about and take pride in.”

The citywide graduation rate was included on the latest “School Quality Reports,” guides the city education department publishes online each year to help families evaluate schools and compare their performance to the city average. The 2017 reports were posted this week.

“The graduation rate in the School Quality Reports is preliminary and, as always, the official citywide graduation rate will be released by the state later this school year,” said department spokeswoman Toya Holness.

Among struggling schools in de Blasio’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, the news was mixed. More than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, the New York Times reported Thursday. Six of the schools saw declines.

A wide gulf remains between the share of students who graduate high school and those who are ready for college-level work. Just 46 percent of New York City students last year met the academic benchmarks necessary to avoid remedial classes at CUNY schools, according to numbers released this week.

“Historically, there are fears that it’s been possible for kids to graduate without necessarily demonstrating the skills and competencies they need to succeed in college without remediation,” Pallas said.

Mayor de Blasio set a goal of graduating 80 percent of students by 2026, a metric the city will achieve if the graduation rate continues to inch up by even 1 percentage point each year. He has launched several initiatives to advance that goal, including a plan to better prepare students for algebra — which is often a stumbling block for students.

Meanwhile, the state has made it easier for some students to earn a diploma.

Students with disabilities can now graduate by passing only two Regents exams, while most students must pass five. At the same time, more students are now eligible to appeal a failed Regents exam and students can substitute a skills certificate for a final Regents exam.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.

five years in

Tennessee’s two big school turnaround experiments are yielding big lessons, researchers say

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee this month received a report card of sorts from researchers who have closely followed its two primary initiatives for five years.

The assessment was both grim and promising — and punctuated with lessons that already are informing the state’s efforts to improve struggling schools.

The grim: The state-run Achievement School District fell woefully short of its initial goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. This model, based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana, allowed Tennessee to take control of struggling local schools and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around. But not only has the ASD failed to move the needle on student achievement, it has struggled to retain teachers and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 33.

The promising: Innovation zones, which are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding, have shown promise in improving student performance, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, programmatic and staffing decisions, similar to charter schools. While iZones exist in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, the most notable work has been through Shelby County Schools, now with 23 Memphis schools in its turnaround program. Not only have student outcomes improved in the iZone, its schools have enjoyed lower teacher turnover rates and greater retention of high-quality teachers.

One big lesson, according to this month’s report: Removing schools from their structures of local government isn’t necessary to improve student outcomes.

That explains Tennessee’s decision, under the new federal education law, to include partnership zones as part of its expanded turnaround toolkit. The model offers charter-like autonomy but is governed jointly by local and state officials. The first zone will launch next fall in Chattanooga, where the school board reluctantly approved the arrangement recently for five chronically underperforming schools that otherwise would have been taken over by the ASD.

The partnership model avoids the toll of school takeover, which the report’s researchers say contributed to community mistrust of the ASD, especially in its home base of Memphis.

“That faith in the ask of these schools going to the state operator came with the promise to raise student achievement,” said researcher James Guthrie. “To not see this achievement in the first round of results raises a crisis of legitimacy (for the ASD).”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

Guthrie is among researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA. The group’s work continues to guide the State Department of Education on what has worked, what has not, and why. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen requested their five-year summary as part of the state’s own self-analysis, as well as to inform school improvement work nationwide.

In interviews with Chalkbeat, TERA researchers emphasized that the final word hasn’t been written on any of the turnaround models in play in Tennessee. They continue to track students in struggling schools. And they emphasized that turnaround is a long game, one that the ASD’s founders underestimated.

“The cautionary tale of any reform is to be realistic about what you can achieve,” said Ron Zimmer of the University of Kentucky. “…If (the ASD) had been more realistic, people would have had more realistic expectations (about) what would have been deemed a success.”

The operators of ASD schools have had a steep learning curve amid daunting challenges that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition.

Five years in, there’s still hope that the ASD can improve its schools with more time, said Joshua Glazer of George Washington University.

“We have seen that several providers have learned some hard lessons and are now applying those lessons to their models,” Glazer said. “Many have overhauled curriculum and taken a very different approach to supporting teachers. Across the board, providers have realized that much more robust systems of guidance and support are needed. These changes have the potential to lead to better student outcomes, but only time will tell if scores will go up.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD’s chief of academics in August.

The state recently recruited a new academic leader, and it’s looking for a new superintendent who can create a more collaborative environment within the ASD’s portfolio of operators and schools. The district also underwent a major restructuring over the summer, cutting staff to curb costs and streamline roles as federal money ran out from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award.

Funding will be among the biggest long-term challenges for both the state-run district and the local iZones, said Zimmer.

While the Memphis’ iZone has shown initial success, it’s an expensive model that includes educator bonuses and adds an hour to the school day.  

The ASD also needs adequate funding, but Zimmer said that became harder when its schools did not produce early gains. “It takes up to five or six years before see we significant benefit from a program like the ASD,” he said. “The problem is that people don’t have the political patience to wait for it.”

McQueen emphasizes frequently that all of the state’s turnaround models work together. She and Gov. Bill Haslam remain steadfast in their support of the ASD — a point she drove home again on Wednesday when asked about the embattled district.

“It is the state’s most rigorous intervention as noted in Tennessee’s recently approved ESSA plan,” McQueen said, “and is clearly a critical part of the state’s accountability model.”

For more discussion about the five-year brief, you can read blog posts in Education Week from TERA and the State Department of Education.