Shared from the 3/6/2020 Houston Chronicle eEdition

HISD plans to launch first computer academy

Marie D. De Jesus / Staff photographer

Lavaris Williams, left, and Bartley White built a personal computer with help from Best Buy volunteers in 2018. HISD wants to create a computer science academy in August 2020.

Houston ISD officials want to open the district’s first specialty school focused on computer sciences in the upcoming school year, aiming to produce graduates ready for high-paying jobs in a fast-growing sector.

District administrators hope to open the Houston Academy for Computer Sciences in August 2020, possibly in east Downtown, ultimately aiming to serve about 900 students in grades 6 through

12. HISD officials said they plan to partner with Rice University’s Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity in Education and Schlumberger, as well as other to-be-determined nonprofits and companies, in the creation of the school.

“There are just all of these incredible, untapped opportunities in this field, and I don’t think we’re really doing it justice,” said Rick Cruz, HISD’s chief strategy and innovation officer. “There’s just so much excitement from various people we talk to, whether it’s corporate partners or parents or students. I think people are going to eat this up because there’s just so much that can happen with it.”

The academy’s development comes amid widespread demand for employees in the computer and information technology fields, which are expected to add more than 500,000 jobs over the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The employment need is particularly acute in Houston, where the city’s medical and energy industries require thousands of tech-savvy employees.

HISD officials said the potential for students to earn well-above-average salaries — the median annual wage reached about $86,300 in 2018, according to federal data — in a high-demand industry requires action by the district. As proposed, the campus would provide students with tracks to attend prestigious colleges or gain employment straight out of high school.

HISD currently offers computer and information technology classes in most of its high schools. The specialty academy, however, would expand those offerings to middle school students and embed more computer science courses throughout its curriculum.

The recommendation, however, faced several questions Wednesday from school board members who expressed concern about the potential campus location, access for students from historically disadvantaged neighborhoods and the cost of expansion.

In particular, the possible east Downtown location prompted concerns about equitable distribution of specialty schools. The downtown area already is home to several choice campuses.

“Are we really looking at this equitably and thinking about where is the demand?” HISD Trustee Judith Cruz asked.

HISD administrators have not set a date for seeking final approval for the school from trustees.

Few public school districts across the country have adapted to the growing demand for tech-focused employees, partially due to challenges in hiring and retaining computer science teachers who can earn more in the private sector.

“We’re noticing computer sciences is hot right now and there’s areal groundswell of interest across states in bringing more computer science into Kthrough-12 classrooms,” said Talia Milgrom-Elcott, founder and executive director of 100Kin10, a national nonprofit that coordinates training of teachers.

“The biggest catch, and this is showing up all over the country, is that there are not enough teachers prepared to teach computer science.”

If opened, Houston Academy for Computer Sciences would join more than 20 other HISD campuses that draw middle or high school students from across the district’s geographic boundaries, one of the state’s most extensive school choice systems.

HISD’s specialty schools have drawn praise over the past few decades for increasing choice options in the district and providing unique opportunities to students ahead of graduation. Several campuses designed to prepare students for college produce strong academic results while also serving large percentages of black, Hispanic and lower-income students.

Critics, however, have noted that some specialty schools enroll a disproportionately higher share of affluent, Asian and white students, including three ofthe district’s most-lauded campuses. In addition, specialty schools often draw high-performing students from neighborhood campuses, resulting in lower accountability ratings that perpetuate negative perceptions about low-ranked schools.

Administrators aim to enroll a diverse student population, which could involve giving admissions preference to some students living close to the campus. The campus would enroll about 200 students in grades 6 and 9 in August 2020, then add an additional middle and high school grade level each year.

“There is a shared, common feeling among our parents that there’s a need for this, that there are jobs for this,” said Jyoti Malhan, HISD’s director of computer science and a lead designer of the new campus.

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