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How an Arlington County high school is closing the gap in high tech

Susannah Herrada takes a deep dive into how Arlington Tech High School is increasing diversity as it prepares students for tech careers.

Arlington Tech high school students. (Photo by Daniela Londono, Arlington Career Center Media Department)

This guest post is a part of Technical.ly's Women in Tech month.

Two young women sit in a public high school classroom on a Friday afternoon in Arlington, Va., collaborating over lines of code in an Introduction to Computer Science class.

I count a total of nine students, five male and four female. Is this America’s future tech workforce? If so, the future looks diverse. For these students, almost half of which are female and many of which are minorities, this means access to lucrative careers in tech.

Headway is being made to diversify the tech workforce through high school programs such as the one I observe, along with a more proactive approach from the tech community in general. Still, there’s more to be done. Forbes reports a downward trend for women leading Fortune 500 companies from 2017 to 2018, and Fortune says that women still lag well behind their male peers in securing venture-capital dollars, much of which funds for tech startups. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC reports that tech still lags when compared to private industry as far as employing African Americans (7.4 percent tech vs. 14.4 percent private sector) and Hispanics (8 percent tech vs. 13.9 percent private sector).

Diversifying tech takes action, not just open doors

It takes good intention and policy change to achieve diversity.

“For the longest time, people were just saying, ‘We’re not denying anyone,’ the students’ teacher, Jeffrey Elkner, says as he explained the pervasive attitude which excused inaction among the tech sector when it came to diversity. Elkner is an Arlington County high school Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher and adjunct Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) professor.

The problem is that simply claiming open doors is not enough. “If you’re a young woman looking around in the industry and all you see is white guys, the message is going to be clear, ‘There’s no place for me in this’,” Elkner says.

The tech community is beginning to realize the need to be proactive in building a workforce with people who don’t all look like Elkner, white and male. For example, take the open-source Python programming language. At PyCon, its annual convention, women speakers went from 1 percent in 2011 to 40 percent in 2016, corresponding to a push to reach out to women through direct mentoring and scholarships, along with adopting a code of conduct.

These PyCon speakers, in turn, show other women that the Python community is a place for them. In fact, 16 of Elkner’s students, six of which are female, will have a chance to hear some of those women speak at PyCon this May. The students have registered for the lunch hosted by PyLadies, an international mentorship group encouraging women to become active participants in the Python community. They’ve also formed a Django Girls Chapter, dedicated to inspiring women to get interested in tech and programming.

Updating tech curriculum

High school curriculum has also changed, with the goal of diversifying the career pipeline. Students are no longer thrown into a code-slinging programming course as their first experience in the computer science pathway, leaving students behind who either don’t love coding or are not intrinsically motivated to learn.

Instead, high school course offerings now offer a more real-world approach to tech. The hope is to retain girls and people of color who initially show interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) during elementary years but disappear from the picture by the time they reach high school-level tech classes.

It seems to be working. In the first year of launching  AP Computer Science Principles (AP CSP), the number of students from underrepresented groups taking high school AP computer science exams nearly tripled. This multidisciplinary course developed by a group of independent nonprofits in 2016 broadens participation in computer science by stressing its practical applications.

Anecdotal evidence looks good, too. I asked Arlington Tech (AT) junior Lena Boltz how she feels about entering a male-dominated field. She confidently says, “Just because more males may go into this field, it doesn’t make it male-dominated,” emphasizing the word dominated.

Her classmate Sheereen Khan says gender norms haven’t kept her from taking computer classes. She explained that these days, the focus isn’t on who is doing it, but what they are doing. There are benefits to getting these skills in high school, explains Khan. “In the classroom, there’s not the same competition one might encounter in the workforce where the stakes are higher. You’re all just partners working.”

Just because more males may go into this field, it doesn’t make it male-dominated,

Updating vo-tech

These young women attend AT at the Arlington Career Center. Once having primarily housed programs you may remember as vo-tech, the career center’s academically rigorous AT program is just three years old. Students are dual-enrolled at NOVA and will graduate with college credit, along with the possibility of earning an advanced high school diploma.

The AT program brings diversity to the tech workforce by exposing more students to CTE classes within a Project-Based Learning (PBL) framework. The hope is that a more diverse group of students will enter university or the workforce not only with academic content and real-world experience, but also through the PBL framework, will also hone the soft skills necessary for success, including leadership, strong communication and presentation skills, team management and collaboration.

Targeted recruiting

AT’s applicant pool for the 2019-20 school year has an almost equal breakdown when it comes to gender. As far as reflecting the county’s racial diversity, this public school program, which accepts students based on a blind lottery, is within a few percentage points.

Initially this wasn’t the case for both gender and racial minorities. Only seven of the 47 students were female in the first class. Similarly to the Python community, approaching parity in AT’s student body takes more than good intentions.

As the primary recruiter, Arlington Tech Program Coordinator Catherine Steinmetz explained that she’s had to adjust recruiting practices.

“I needed to reach those groups which don’t readily associate with something which is tech or has a STEM focus. These groups don’t always have someone saying ‘you can be an engineer or solve complex problems or do something in computer science’,” she says.

Steinmetz says that now when she visits middle schools, she’s strategic in meeting with young women and other underrepresented groups. She’s adjusted her message to resonate with eighth grade girls who tend to have more concerns about the school community.

“They want to see one of their friends or someone which looks like them. They want to know that they will be a part of a community,” Steinmetz explains. One of her best recruiting tools? Like the Python community, she uses peer-mentoring, calling on those first seven female students to talk with prospective students.

Projecting forward

As I watch the students work that afternoon, I’m struck by their confidence. Whether they graduate high school and pursue STEM careers or not, it’s clear that the boost they’ve gained from taking tech classes in high school will make them better thinkers and stronger problem solvers.

Heylin Rodriguez speaks to me about her future plans to go to Virginia Tech. She emigrated from Honduras five years ago. She says taking tech classes and learning to code has changed how she sees herself and her potential.

“In my country of Honduras, people have this ideology that women are not capable. When I started this class, I realized I am capable of doing this. I can do this. It’s not only for men,” she says.

We’ve got our eyes on you, Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, Boltz and Khan, along with three other young women and ten young men are attending the PyCon conference May 1-9 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Series: Women in Tech Month 2019

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