By Jade Shojaee | Photo Credit: Ben Gill
Four times a year, community members take their broken, slow, and old computers to De Anza High School in Richmond to be fixed for free by students of the Information Technology Academy (ITA) on what the school refers to as “Fix It Day”. The West Contra Costa Unified School District has developed a series of comprehensive high school pathway programs in which students modify their educations based on their preferred career pathway. Too good to be true? The stats prove otherwise with some 98% of enrolled seniors receiving diplomas in the 2016/2017 school year.
“Every one of our students is involved in a pathway,” said Information Technology Academy’s Pathway Lead Teacher Ben Gill. 10th grade students choose a pathway, which is essentially a series of work-based learning opportunities that inform the entirety of each student’s education, and they stay together as one class throughout the high school experience. “It allows us to create a small learning community where students can get to know teachers on a deeper level and work together on bigger collaborative projects. It’s a school within a school.”
Students form what Gill refers to as “student cohorts,” or high school communities in which students are able to grow their preferred skill with the support and camaraderie of a close group of peers. According to Gill, this creates a mentor/friend type relationship between teachers and their students. “Teachers are able to meet collaboratively on a weekly basis, and since we all have that same students we can troubleshoot and provide support in a way that would be harder in a traditional school system.”
De Anza’s Information Technology Academy started in 2009 after the California Partnership Academy (CPA) received a grant enabling them to implement the program. The program is funded under an SB70 state program that, according to Gill, is taking the place of vocational education.” We’re looking to bridge that gap between academic education and career vocational training,” said Gill. “When I was in high school classes weren’t aligned in any matter, so kids could take woodshop and other classes as they see fit. The program now merges academic and technical classes.”
The district works with several community partners in order to provide an optimal and cohesive preview into a life in each potential career “pathway,” one of which is Linked Learning, an approach to education based on the idea that students work harder and dream bigger if their education is relevant to them. The Linked Learning approach integrates rigorous academics that meet college-ready standards with sequenced, high-quality career-technical education, work-based learning, and supports to help students stay on track.
“The West Contra Costa County Unified School District has been working for a number of years to establish high quality Linked Learning pathways and to systematically advance Linked Learning opportunities for students in the East Bay,” said Hilary McLean, Executive Vice President of Linked Learning. For Linked Learning students, education is organized around industry-sector themes that are woven curricula. Teachers collaborate with working professionals to ensure the classes are current and relevant.
“The IT Academy is a great exemplar of a Linked Learning pathway,” said McLean. “The data shows that this approach to education is making a real difference in the lives of students who are participating, by helping the students gain real-world experience through internships, as well as career and college knowledge and preparation. We hope to see pathways like the IT Academy flourish and improve the futures of students throughout the state.”
This past school year, the department spearheaded an effort to secure free Wi-Fi for the school. “English students helped write up the grant proposal and did case studies on where stuff like that had been implemented throughout the community,” said Gill. Just one example of how the program manages to keep common core curricula relevant to each chosen career pathway.
As it stands, the ITA at De Anza is about 35% female and 65% male. “Not as good as I’d like it to be,” said Gill who is making efforts to see female enrollment increases including partnering with an organization called Girls Who Code which actively recruits girls to enter into the STEM Worldwide Organization. The program also provides training materials and hackathons at which students can come together to work on a coding problem over the weekend. “It provides networking opportunities for girls to network with other girls.”
“My experience in the ITA academy was one to remember,” said Antonette Robinson, former ITA student. “I never knew girls could be so fluent in the industry. I always had this image of men in the tech field. That’s something I no longer picture. I got to go on trips that opened my eyes to new opportunities. Now that I am out of the academy I am trying to figure out how to further my education.” Robinson currently studies at Dev Bootcamp for coding.
“I’ve definitely seen our female enrollment increase steadily since I’ve been here,” said Gill. “You hear girls talking about opportunities studying computer science and electrical engineering. When I was in high school, it definitely wasn’t that way.”
Born and raised in raised in Richmond, Gill currently lives in Stockton and commutes to his hometown to teach. “I’ve turned down teaching jobs in Central Valley and do this commute every day because of the connection I have with these kids in this community.”
“Fix It Days” concluded for this year on Saturday May 28th but come October, there will be more opportunities to receive the complimentary IT help at De Anza High School’s cafeteria. Visit http://wccusdpathways.org/information-technology-de-anza-high-school/
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