MISSION, RGV – President Obama recently promoted what he called an incredible economic development opportunity – coding boot camps where students and workers can quickly learn the computer skills needed in the 21st Century.

Obama dubbed his initiative TechHire and called on mayors and council members in cities across America to help, pointing out that that these computers skills are needed far beyond Silicon Valley. He said such coding programs have the potential to rapidly empower under-served minority communities.

Alex Meade, CEO of Mission Economic Development Corporation.
Alex Meade, CEO of Mission Economic Development Corporation.

Obama could easily have used Mission, Texas, as the poster child for his initiative, which he unveiled at a National League of Cities congressional conference in Washington, D.C. This is because Mission’s economic development corporation, working with program partners Sylvan Learning and Border Kids Code, started its computer coding initiative nine months before Obama gave his remarks. The program, called Code the Town, has already trained over 400 kids from K – 6 and 100 K – 12 teachers.

“In his speech, President Obama acknowledges the need for skills like computer coding. Currently, we cannot fill the demand for jobs requiring these skills. And so the President’s call was to support computer science education as an economic development vehicle for growing jobs in America. Alex Meade and the Mission EDC are already on to this,” Susan Valverde, executive director of Sylvan Learning in the Rio Grande Valley, told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Valverde said Mission’s Code the Town has already proved to be “an incredible success.” Because of this, she said, Sylvan has received calls from many school districts. “One of the school districts where we will be doing something pretty large is Port Isabel. All over, we are not just talking about the larger districts, we even talking about the mid-size and smaller ones that can follow Mission’s lead.”

In remarks to an RGV Leadership class in Brownsville last week, Valverde explained how Code the Town came about.

“Alex found it on Facebook. He saw these super-excited kids, first and second graders, learning to unravel code, to reprogram an app, learning the language that props up a website, and using video games. Alex came to us and before we knew it we had devised a program, corporate office had approved it and helped fund it,” Valverde said.

“To have Mission, Texas, being the lead in doing something this cool, was fantastic. We started training 100 teachers in coding, getting teachers comfortable with the use of technology in the classroom and how to apply it in a fun and engaging way. We started open enrollment. We had 200 students signed up in a couple of days. They all went through a coding class. Twenty five of the kids created apps, they were second and third and fourth graders. Their parents, their teachers, were just blown away. We exceeded what we thought we could do.”

Valverde said a new cohort of 200 students in Mission will start Code the Town this spring, with a further 200 in the summer.

In his speech, President Obama asked cities across American to work with his administration to “build a pipeline of tech workers for the new 21st Century economy.” Obama said high tech workers were not only needed in places like San Francisco and Boston. He pointed out that there are more job openings now than at any time since 2001 and that over half a million of these jobs are technology-related. Obama said many of the jobs are for positions that did not exist ten years ago, such as mobile app developer and user face designer.

“We tend to think these jobs are in Silicon Valley… but two-thirds are in non-high tech industries, like healthcare or manufacturing or banking, which means they are in every corner of the country. There is not industry that has not been touched by this technology revolution,” Obama said.

“What is more, a lot of these jobs do not require a four year degree in computer science. They do not require you be an engineer. Folks can get the skills they need for these jobs in newer, streamlined, faster training programs. What is more, these tech jobs pay 50 percent more than the average private sector wage – which means they are a ticket into the middle class. This is an economic development issue.”

Obama said cities can drive his initiative by promoting programs like coding boot camps and online courses that have pioneered new ways to teach tech skills in a fraction of the time it would take in a classroom setting.

“These new models have the potential to reach under-served communities, to reach women who are still under-represented in this sector, or minorities, who are still under-represented in this sector. And veterans who we know can do the job,” Obama said. “Mayors, council leaders, seize this incredible economic development opportunity that can change the way we think about training and hiring the workers of tomorrow.”

Meade, Mission EDC’s CEO, believes he and his team have already seized the opportunity. In an interview with Rio Grande Guardian, Meade explained how Mission students that have learned coding skills have outperformed their counterparts across the country.

“Sylvan Learning opened 20 pilot sites throughout the country and 250 students went through the pilot program. Of these, 200 of those were from Mission. Sylvan is based in Baltimore and their leaders came down to the graduation for our first cohort. They were like, man, everybody knows who Code the Town is because you guys have so many kids going through your program. They said this has turned out to be bigger than expected,” Meade explained.

Meade said 50 high school teachers were initially trained under Code the Town in Mission. “If you total the number of students they each impacted, it is 7,000 students. What we are trying to do is change the trajectory of Mission by focusing on STEM education,” Meade said.

Meade said that, in his view, there is more to Code the Town than simply training young students to become computer scientists.

“The fact that we teach them computer science and entrepreneurship and how to start a business, that is great. But, critical thinking, problem solving, logic, those are things they can use with any degree or career, on any path they take. That is really what we are after. It is not so much teaching them how to run a business or teaching them how to create an app. If they can, that is great, but the critical thing and the 21st Century skills they are learning, that is what we are going after. It is working very well.”

Meade is proud of what the first cohort of Code the Town students achieved and believes things can only get better.

“We were competing with bigger cities. It baffled them in Baltimore that the city that came out on top was in the Rio Grande Valley. Here is an area that demographically, we are supposed to be uneducated, statistically, compared to Baltimore. Yet, we had the biggest interest. Some of the kids are coming back to class with cool projects, such as how to improve the curriculum.  Remember, we are talking about five year olds. It is unbelievable. Each one of them took eight to ten hours of this computer programming course.”

Asked why he thought Mission students did so well, Meade said: “Statistics can be interesting. We always score fairly low in the Valley. But the one thing you cannot put a number on is the drive, or the ganas, and that is a huge factor. The ganas our students have speaks volumes.”

Meade said more cities and economic development corporations should get behind programs that link the STEM fields with entrepreneurship. “STEEM, or E-STEM teaches you how to take your idea to market. Entrepreneurs are risk takers and problem-solvers and that is what we want to teach the kids, in a fun way. This is what we are doing with Code the Town. It is definitely something to brag about.”

Susan Valverde, executive director or Sylvan Learning Center in the Rio Grande Valley.
Susan Valverde, executive director or Sylvan Learning Center in the Rio Grande Valley.

In a news release, Meade pointed out that President Obama’s TechHire initiative is “almost identical” to Code the Town.

“Our initiative consists of “coding boot camps” that introduce the community to computer coding and seek to strengthen elementary and secondary computer science education in K – 12. Not to brag, but our program has been so successful that to date, with the help of our program partners, Sylvan Learning and Border Kids Code, we have trained over 400 kids from K – 6 and 100 K – 12 teachers. This program is a testament to the forward planning leaders that we have in the City of Mission,” Meade said.

Both Meade and Valverde said they would now like to see Code the Town extended into Valley high schools, which is where House Bill 3700, authored by state Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, comes in.

“HB 3700 allows us the flexibility to have secondary schools encourage students to take computer science in advanced and emerging technology based computer science class and have that count as a math or science requirement. There is so much math in computer science that it is applied and very relevant,” Valverde said.

Meade said his understanding of HB 3700 is that it will establish a pilot program in certain school districts to develop computer science education and professional development opportunities.

There is a video on the White House website of Obama unveiling TechHire at the National League of Cities conference. After watching the video, Meade said, “It is evident that with Mission’s strong leadership and the help from our partners that the city will be perfectly situated to thrive in a 21st century economy. Go Mission.”