Dev

Struggling Oregon school district hopes to bounce back with computer science courses

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Edtech startup Treehouse has been on a mission to bring more coding classes into high schools, and its crusade continues in the Umatilla School District in Umatilla, Ore.

Currently, the district’s high school program ranks in the bottom seven percent for Oregon schools, with median per capita income in the 6,000-person community hovering around $15,000.

However, the high school’s focus on STEM has led to big boosts in results for its science and math programs since 2004. In standardized tests for tenth graders in 2004, just 38.7 percent of students met standards for math, and 55.6 met science standards. In 2011, those numbers rose to 54.9 percent and 75.3 percent, respectively.

A select few of the high school’s 380 students started using learn-to-code site Treehouse’s online video library as a pilot program during the past three months; school officials say the experiment has already been a huge success. Based on that trial run, the district will offer Treehouse coding classes throughout the school year, albeit only as an elective.

“We introduced the opportunity to teacher-nominated students over the summer and have been very impressed with the rigor of the course work and interest the program sparks in students,” said Superintendent Heidi Sipe in a statement on the news.


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“One would expect that students asked to do schoolwork throughout the summer may be less than thrilled with the invitation; however, Treehouse has proven to be a motivating, engaging and exciting program for the students.”

Students are able to earn credit for their Treehouse coursework on a teacher-approved basis.

Treehouse has some experience in working with at-risk schools. Last December, it announced a similar program in a Detroit school, where 22 ninth-grade students took courses from Treehouse as part of a four-year enrichment program.

Especially for poorer areas of the U.S., access to high-paying jobs such as software programming or software engineering can make a huge difference in a community. Yet teachers, parents, and students still struggle to get topics like computer science into the curriculum.

“Ninety percent of schools don’t even offer computer science, and those aren’t the schools with lots of white kids in great neighborhoods,” said Code.org founder Hadi Partovi in a recent phone call with VentureBeat.

“Coding is the American Dream. If you want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or even want a high paying job, those jobs are for programmers. … And yet the opportunity to be exposed to that is going to the top 10 percent, and that is just morally wrong.”

Treehouse founder Ryan Carson said via email, “It’s certainly been an uphill battle to get Treehouse (or any computer science or design) into schools. We’ve seen numbers that say as few as 5 percent of American schools have computer science classes — and all indications are it’s a number that is smaller now than it was in the ’70s.

“We’ve been trying to connect to schools to show them that their students need to learn to program. It’s a given that computing will be a required skill for work as we progress through the 21st century.”

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