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Beeville schools first to require computer science for all students

Every single teacher in Beeville ISD must now incorporate computer science into the curriculum, the first initiative of its kind in Texas.

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Jarrod Howard left the classroom last summer as a second-grade teacher, and he returned this fall to teach computer science. He still teaches second-graders, but like all of the 250 teachers in the Beeville Independent School District, he's now expected — with specialized training and support — to include computer science instruction in his classes. 

Starting this school year, the small South Texas district became the first in the state to make computer science compulsory for all 3,500 students at its six campuses. To do that, the district needed to teach its teachers first. It formed a one-year partnership with education tech company Globaloria, which showed Beeville educators how to build computer programming into their curricula. Beeville has a contract paying the private company $162,500 for up to 2,500 students and 227 teachers in its six schools, and an additional $65 per student after that.

So while Howard still teaches his second-graders the basics — math, reading, writing — he now integrates technology and computer science into each subject.

Twice a week, his 18 students work on creating their own computer games. A four-student group called the "Snakes" built a set out of Legos and other props for a world called "New Earth," where dinosaurs and humans co-exist. Next, they will sketch the three-dimensional set on grid paper and eventually use a computer program called Pixlr to transform that drawing into colored pixels.

It may seem like just a fun coloring game, but these seven-year-olds are getting a primer in basic geometry, Howard said. They're dividing squares and building shapes to create a picture. And they're becoming more comfortable with talking about technology and how it helps with basic tasks. Next semester, they will learn how to code in the next phase of Globaloria training.

Howard had no background in computer science or programming and said he felt "overwhelmed but excited" when the program was launched. But the training made him more comfortable, and he regularly uses a Globaloria online help desk when he gets stuck using the technology.

The district's teachers are gradually becoming comfortable with moving beyond traditional core curricula, said Beeville Superintendent Marc Puig, who took the job in August. "We lit a fire in computer science here in Beeville, and it's quite amazing," he said.

The rest of Texas lags behind by comparison: Just 2 percent of Texas high schoolers had taken a computer science class in 2014, according to Carol Fletcher, deputy director at WeTeach_CS, a University of Texas at Austin program providing computer science K-12 training. And most science and technology jobs are in computer science.

“Our teachers just don’t have the background. It’s not something they have ever been trained in,” Fletcher said. “You don’t need super advanced hardware to teach computer science. You need people who know what they’re doing.”

One of the hardest parts of Beeville's rollout was making sure there were enough computers available. At the beginning of the school year, seven English teachers competed for five computer labs, sometimes with more students than actual computers, said Kelly Billington, curriculum consultant at A.C. Jones High School. Students used tablets and their personal smartphones to complete their work.

Beeville officials have spent almost $250,000 since August equipping classrooms and computer labs with Chromebook laptops. They added two computer labs to the high school campus. High school English classes used the labs twice a week to complete a basic coding workshop.

"All of a sudden, the whole district is saying, 'There's a reason for us to put wireless in all campuses,'" said Globaloria CEO Idit Harel. The company is designed to work with districts that want to innovate — Beeville was the only one to start big, not small.

Puig plans to stretch the commitment to computer science beyond the partnership. “It’s a long-term commitment for us ... changing the district from traditional to a more innovative approach to get kids to think logically,” he said.

Beeville's transformation is inspiring, said Fletcher. But a paid partnership with a private company might not be the most financially stable model for all districts, she said. The state requires all districts to offer computer science courses for high school students.

“We have to build capacity in schools and districts,” she said, which means finding or creating talented computer science teachers.

Since starting in 2015, WeTeach_CS has trained more than 1,300 Texas educators and helped more than 170 receive computer science certification required to teach the course in public schools.

The program hosted a three-day summit last June to bring Texas computer science teachers together to network and learn from one another.

Instead of turning computer science college graduates into teachers, WeTeach_CS finds aspiring teachers who show an interest in computer science. It also pays a $1,000 stipend to teachers who go through the WeTeach_CS certification training and pass the exam. “It’s worth it for you to get this additional training,” Fletcher said.

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • A new study by the Information and Technology Innovation Foundation warns of a growing deficit in K-12 computer science education.
  • Nearly 50 percent of first-time teachers in Texas quit the field within their first five years. The trend is leaving a gap in important specializations like bilingual education, special education, math, science and computer science.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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