Cracking the Code
DISTRICT | March 3, 2020
Cracking the Code

Expanding Computer Science Opportunities for CPS Students Through an Equity Lens

Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Office of Computer Science (OCS) is focused on one central idea: if you want computer science to be accessible for all students, you have to make it a requirement. 

CPS was the first and largest school district in the nation to make a year of computer science a high school graduation requirement, and the 2020 graduating class will be the first to see the requirement through before receiving their diplomas.

Andrew Rasmussen, CPS computer science project developer, says the benefits of enriching students’ education through computer science extends far beyond simply teaching them how to program or code. 

“We’re not interested in having every graduating class become perfect Java or Python programmers,” he said. “Instead, we want students to have the skills to be able to break down any problem they encounter and learn to recognize how computers can be used in solving them.” 

Now that the graduation requirement is in place at the high school level, the OCS team is focused on finding ways to improve student experiences in computer science classes by ensuring teachers have the resources they need to support their students and create classroom environments in which students feel comfortable asking questions and exploring topics that interest them. 

Andrew believes that making these strides starts with shifting one’s perspective when approaching computer science as an academic discipline. 

“Computer science is a liberal art in a lot of ways because it allows you to express yourself in any way you want to, and making that clear to students is a big part of our mission in classrooms in general,” he said. “We also are looking at ways to assess what is happening in the classroom without making it high stakes or pitting schools against each other.”

At the elementary school level, curriculum specialist and instructional coach Kristan Beck says that part of her job is showing schools how computer science skills can and should be incorporated into the core subjects that students are already learning. By enhancing lessons using technology, teachers can further diversify their students’ skill sets. 

“Computer science should be incorporated into all kinds of other coursework that students do,” she said. “If you’re in the sciences, you should be able to start learning how to model using computers. If you’re in the social sciences, you should be able to program data.” 

External partnerships are also a key part of making these skills more accessible for entire communities, not just students. For instance, OCS has fostered strong support from Google to provide coding and programming opportunities for students and families in high-need areas across the city. These opportunities often take the form of Family Creative Coding Nights, where community members are invited to a local CPS school to explore coding and other computer science activities. 

“With our Family Creative Coding Nights, we are opening up possibilities to whole communities,” said Kristan. “Once a family understands what coding is, a lot of times they’ll say: ‘I didn’t know my student could do this. This is great!’”

CPS has also established several key research partnerships that have enhanced the district’s mission to bring high-quality computer science experiences to both high school and elementary school students. Its partnership with The Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science has helped OCS evaluate its efforts to provide high school students with relevant opportunities for high school students to become technologically literate, and its partnership with Scratch Encore is a collaboration with the University of Chicago and University of Maryland that provides elementary school teachers with robust instructional materials to improve student outcomes in computer science. 

In addition to prioritizing equity through partnerships, OCS is also working diligently to ensure every student who is passionate about computer science feels empowered to pursue courses even after they meet the requirement. Andrew says the team’s goal is to create personalized pathways at each district high school that reflect student interest in the subject without creating a dichotomy between schools with strong computer science offerings and those without. 

Andrew encourages students who are interested in computer science to enroll in Exploring Computer Science or AP Computer Science Principles, which he says are designed to be inclusive of students from a variety of backgrounds. In 2019, ten CPS high schools received the AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award for their impressive female representation in AP Computer Science Principles. 

With students across the city excelling in their computer science coursework and extracurricular activities, OCS is now working on amplifying student voice on technology-related decisions at the district level. One idea OCS has is to create a student internship program that gives high-performing students a way to share their expertise beyond the classroom. 

“It’s important for us to support our students who have expertise, passion, and direct experience to the impact that our work has on them,” said Andrew. “They need to be at the table involved in changing and influencing the systems that they can.” 

Starting with this year, when a CPS student earns their high school diploma, they will leave the district having been exposed to all the possibilities that a computer science background can bring. And we’re excited to see what our students do—the next big technological advancement might just come from a CPS classroom.