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Kids in low-income neighborhoods learn to code

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Some Charleston children who are growing up without computers or internet in their homes are now learning to code for free.

CodeOn, which stands for Coding in Our Neighborhoods, introduces coding concepts and general computer knowledge to kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Charleston.

The program holds weekly classes at community centers in low-income, mostly black neighborhoods that might not be benefiting from the boom in Charleston’s business climate, tourism sector, tech industry and population.

“Charleston is such an up-and-coming and wealthy neighborhood, it just seemed unfair to have any neighborhood or any pocket in our neighborhoods that isn’t benefiting from all the great resources that we have,” said Carolyn Finch, founder and executive director of Charleston Women In Tech.

CodeOn was born last spring out of that group, which has garnered hundreds of attendees at events where discussions often center on how minorities can excel in the tech industry.

“We want to start to chip away at that hurdle of ‘I don’t look like a 25-year-old white male who is coding apps,’” Finch said.

Finch said she hopes the program encourages kids to pursue careers in technology, helping to tackle the sector’s diversity issues.

The initiative could also help fill the need for more qualified programmers in Charleston. South Carolina does not require schools to offer computer science courses, according to Code.org, a nonprofit that works to expand access to computer science and increase participation by women and minorities.

Finch said the outdated curriculum requirements are difficult to change, which widens the workforce gap and leaves many behind.

“The goal was to start a program that provided access to children who probably weren’t getting it either in their schools or their homes. ... We want to help them get the skills to prepare them to be successful in the tech field for the long term,” Finch said.

‘Give them opportunities’

The CodeOn program launched in Laundry Matters, a laundromat and hub for community resources on Reid Street in Charleston’s Eastside neighborhood.

The program has since outgrown that space and relocated to the Eastside Community Development Corp., a one-room community center a few blocks away at America and Amherst streets.

Inside, students excitedly sign in for class on a Tuesday evening. They clamber into their seats, crowded around white plastic tables. Younger kids play games on tablets; older students slowly work their way through coding classes to learn HTML or app development.

Pizza parties help serve as motivators to graduate from Code.org or Khan Academy courses. Volunteers take turns coaching students.

“There you go. We need to do that one more time. You got it! Yes! It just takes practice,” volunteer Anissa Williams says as she gives her student a high-five.

Williams, an engineering manager at Benefitfocus, said she wanted to volunteer because CodeOn reminded her of a similar program in Chicago in which inner-city kids learned to code and took internships at tech companies.

“It gives me goosebumps just describing it. ... Retention rates changed. Crime rates changed. Some of these kids went on to college, some stayed in high school that wouldn’t have — and all they did was teach them to code and give them opportunities,” Williams said.

Kate Wilson, the Eastside program site leader, said she wants every student to eventually learn HTML and build their own website, but mostly, she said, she wants them to enjoy the process.

“We are trying to make the connection of, ‘That thing that you love on your phone — the Snapchat and Facebook and all of the apps — with these skills, you can make something like that,’” said Wilson, a software developer at Benefitfocus.

‘When they’re young’

As with most workforce initiatives, the goal is to engage students at a young age to pique their interest before they progress too far in their studies. Finch wants kids to feel excited and confident about careers in tech.

She said ages 4 to 7 are critical for exposing students to computer science concepts. Studies have shown that children who have computers in the home or parents working in the tech sector tend to excel during that time period, while kids and families without those resources lag behind.

“By the time they hit second or third grade, they’re already behind,” Finch said. “It’s funny because you say you don’t want kids to have screen time, but in this case, you do. You want to make sure they have enough exposure and enrichment so they aren’t scared of it or left behind in classes.”

Nathaniel Glover, a board member of the Eastside Community Development Corp., said many families in the neighborhood cannot afford computers, so many kids do not see technology as a career option.

“That’s why we have to get these kids when they’re young, and get them to keep doing it. ... You want a place where they can come and enjoy themselves and then go home,” he said.

‘Share their knowledge’

Volunteers and site leaders said the program has its challenges: keeping kids focused on the task at hand, students outnumbering volunteers 3-to-1, and teaching a wide range of ages simultaneously.

“Sometimes they struggle with a task or a puzzle, but once they get it and it clicks, there’s this moment of understanding,” said Amanda Sadler, a CodeOn volunteer and project manager at Pokitdok.

Getting community buy-in for the program is also a huge hurdle. Nina Magnesson, site leader at the Rosemont Community Center on the Upper Peninsula, said some parents are concerned about making sure the laptops do not get damaged. Others are unclear about the purpose of coding or why children might need those skills.

Magnesson said CodeOn volunteers are working to gain the trust of parents and community leaders. Plans include hosting career nights, making an informational video and meeting with parents. She said community support is a huge component of making the program sustainable and ensuring students return.

The Rosemont site launched in conjunction with Charleston-based BoomTown’s move into the Pacific Box and Crate development along Upper King Street.

Magnesson, whose title at BoomTown is catalyst for citizenship and social innovation, said the company wanted to connect with the community and teach kids what Charleston’s tech sector does. She wants them to envision themselves working at Charleston-based tech companies one day.

“I believe that this is the most important thing that tech companies can do for Charleston — share their knowledge. Schools cannot handle the rate that tech evolves. We can’t wait for schools’ or even universities’ curriculums to catch up to the rate that tech is evolving,” Magnesson said. “So the tech community has to be engaged with sharing the knowledge with students, and, I believe especially, with underserved students in the neighborhoods that they live.” 

This story originally appeared in the March 20, 2017, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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