The only bigger challenge than improving a struggling computer science program is building one from the ground up.
That’s the impressive feat accomplished by Stephanie Potito, Administrator of Digital Learning for Leominster Public Schools in Massachusetts. Potito has created opportunity and engagement for students through ingenuity and out-of-the-box problem solving, earning her respect from colleagues and gratitude from families whose children benefit from the new doors her hard work has opened for their futures. For these efforts, she was also honored as Innovative Technology Director at T&L’s recent Northeast Regional Leadership Summit.
“Stephanie has been instrumental in implementing a pathway where the district originally had no K-12 computer science curriculum in place. Her tireless efforts to advocate for computer science education have been nothing short of remarkable,” says a colleague. “She initiated training for media and STEM teachers at the elementary level to ensure that students receive the best possible instruction from an early age. She introduced staff to the ISTE Standards and created a crosswalk between ISTE and DLCS to help and highlight the importance of computer science education.”
Potito also facilitates all seven district schools’ participation in Computer Science Education Week via activities from Code.org—an implementation so successful that she was able to secure a grant from Code.org to purchase items to help and ignite passion for computer science.
At the high school level, Potito formed partnerships with the University of California Berkeley to offer AP computer science courses, giving students the chance to earn college credit while still in high school—creating a lasting impact on the lives of these students.
Championing Investment in Computer Science Programs
“Convincing stakeholders to invest in computer science does require some effort,” says Potito. “It is essential to present a well-researched and compelling argument highlighting the benefits of computer science education. This includes emphasizing the growing demand for technological skills in the job market, the importance of preparing students for the digital age, and the potential for increased student engagement and academic achievement.”
Some level of flexibility is also required when taking on such an immense mission. Although Potito believes in the importance of early intervention so the youngest learners begin with a strong baseline of computer science knowledge, she initiates her program at the middle school level because that corresponds to the available federal grant program.
“At the K-5 level, our focus was growing a computer science program organically, relying on media and STEM teachers to integrate a few computer science lessons in their classrooms and participate in the Hour of Code,” she says. “We are working on restructuring this. We leveraged a partnership with EDC and the University of Berkeley to bring a supported AP computer science program to the high school (open to all interested students). Our overall goal is that every child will have some computer science education every year—it’s a lofty goal, but we’re hopeful we can get there.”
Partnerships are also essential because they provide industry expertise as well as suggestions for roll outs. “They force accountability outside of the school district, so it makes us pause and think about our participation,” says Potito, who credits a supportive administrative team, as well as interest from community stakeholders and teachers willing to take calculated risks, for her success.
5 Best Practices to Build a Computer Science Program
- Establish a clear vision and goals: Define a clear vision for computer science education in your school district. Identify the goals you want to achieve and how computer science fits into the broader educational landscape. Ensure alignment with existing curriculum standards and educational priorities.
- Provide professional development opportunities: Offer PD programs for teachers to enhance their computer science knowledge and teaching skills. Provide workshops, courses, and resources that cover both foundational concepts and emerging technologies. Encourage collaboration and sharing of best practices among teachers to foster a supportive community of computer science educators.
- Develop a comprehensive curriculum: Design a comprehensive computer science curriculum that spans different grade levels and incorporates various aspects of the discipline, such as coding, computational thinking, algorithms, and data analysis. Ensure the curriculum is age-appropriate, progressive, and aligned with industry standards. Consider integrating computer science across other subjects to reinforce its interdisciplinary nature.
- Create a supportive infrastructure: Invest in the necessary infrastructure and resources to support computer science education. Ensure access to appropriate hardware, software, and internet connectivity. Establish computer labs or provide devices for students to practice coding and engage in hands-on activities. Foster partnerships with technology companies, universities, and community organizations to access additional resources and expertise.
- Foster engagement and inclusivity: Promote computer science as an inclusive and accessible field for all students. Encourage participation from underrepresented groups, including girls, minorities, and students with disabilities. Offer extracurricular activities, coding clubs, and competitions to engage students beyond the classroom. Showcase successful role models and highlight the diverse career paths available in computer science.
Smart Strategies for Tight Budgets
Even the most impassioned leader can be derailed by the bottom line. Here are suggestions to help get the most out of your budget for computer science
- Leverage partnerships: Collaborate with local and national computer science education programs. Potito’s school district was awarded a financial prize for commitment to the Hour of Code that covered items such as robots that could make CS come to life.
- Seek grants and funding opportunities: Districts can actively pursue federal, state, private grants and funding targeted towards technology integration and PD for teachers in CS. Potito’s district partners with DESE as well as the EDC and University of Berkeley for invaluable resources in knowledge and roll outs as well as financial incentives.
- Prioritize professional development: Invest in PD programs for teachers to equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively teach computer science. Districts can explore cost-effective options such as online courses, workshops and tapping the expertise of in-house technology specialists.
- Emphasize open-source and low-cost resources: Free or low-cost resources available include open-source programming languages, online coding platforms, and educational websites. Districts can leverage these resources to provide students with meaningful computer science experiences without significant financial investments.
- Encourage partnerships between schools: Encourage collaboration among schools within the district, sharing resources, expertise and best practices for computer science education. A collaborative approach helps distribute costs and provides opportunities for networking and peer support.
- Sphero Robots, such as Indis and Bolts
- Code & Go mice, for screenless coding
- iBlocks curriculum via TEQ
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