The secret is out. Computer science and its related fields are the key to our community’s future.
By 2020, our nation expects to have 1.4 million jobs in computer science. Five of the fastest growing occupations are in computing, and jobs involving knowledge of computers are among the highest entry-level salaries of any bachelor’s degree.
Skills in computer science and technology can take someone from a low-income status to a middle-to-high income salary. Unfortunately, many students in the Valley still don’t have access to computer science courses in their schools. This lack of exposure to technology prevents students from breaking out of generational cycles towards a brighter future.
Two-thirds of the families in the Rio Grande Valley’s four counties are poor, compared to 17 percent for Texas as a whole. With population where 90 percent identify as Hispanic, three out of four children are growing up in poverty. Here on the U.S.-Mexico border, the City of Mission is home to more than 80,000 individuals of Hispanic background and the city has a poverty rate of a 26 percent. The Mission Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the organization I lead, was founded in an effort to generate opportunities and bridge gaps for this community’s workforce.
One of Mission EDC’s valued partners in this work is Teach For America. Since 1991, Teach For America has recruited, trained, and supported top college graduates and professionals to commit to teach in our schools, alongside other dedicated educators, and become lifelong leaders in the movement for educational equity. This year, 170 Teach For America corps members and alumni are leading local classrooms, while an additional 90 Teach For America alumni are working from other sectors to expand educational opportunity in the Rio Grande Valley. Teach For America has been an important ally in ensuring that all kids, regardless of their income, have access to the education they deserve.
In recent years, Teach For America has helped lead the way to ensure more students in the Valley have access to computer science education and information. Through grants with the National Science Foundation and AT&T, Teach For America has trained teachers to bring an accessible curriculum called Exploring Computer Science to several local high schools. Teach For America has been supporting four new computer science teachers to teach this curriculum in the Valley’s low-income schools. In addition, TFA collaborates with other PreK-12 partners in education, industry, and government to ensure that computer science education is a priority.
Mission EDC is one of them. TFA’s work addresses a major void the EDC has noted in this area. After visiting local school and school leaders, it became clear to the EDC that in most cases, computer science classes are not being offered – and when they are, the focus is limited to learning programs like PowerPoint or Excel. To help bridge this gap, we also looked at ways to provide access for more students. One effort is Code the Town, a program that offers free coding classes to kids after school through the Sylvan Learning Center. Students engage in a portfolio of apps that they continue to work on after they graduate from the program. So far, 3,000 Mission students have gone through the Code the Town program.
Companies coming to the Rio Grande Valley are assessing our potential to provide a technical workforce. Teaching students computer science will provide them with skills that can transcend across industries and seize these opportunities. To be successful at this will take the partnership of economic development corporations, schools, business leaders, elected officials, and educational organizations like Teach For America.
From March 6-10, 2017, our region celebrates Teach For America week. During this time, Teach For America corps member teachers invite leaders across business, government, the media, arts and other sectors into classrooms to share their example and time with kids. And in at least one classroom during this week, students will learn – perhaps for the first time – the benefits of developing computer skills. When our business and community leaders partner with Teach For America on programs like TFA Week or computer science education initiatives, we are sending our children a message that we believe in them and are committed to doing everything possible to ensure they are set up for a successful and bright tomorrow.