Fueled by a $100,000 grant from Google to introduce computer science into local classrooms, the Mountain View Whisman School District is preparing to launch an ambitious coding curriculum that would reach 1,800 students.
District officials unveiled the plans last month to adopt the new program, called TechSmart, into four schools as a means to turn computer science into a regular, core subject. Two lessons each week would be focused on coding, computational thinking and "algorithmic processes," each one with an adjustable level of difficulty depending on the student's proficiency.
The plan is to "pilot" the program at Theuerkauf and Castro elementary schools as well as Graham and Crittenden middle schools, for students in grades three through eight -- more than 1,800 students in all, according to a district staff report. The far-reaching scope of the grant and the length -- a full year -- exceeds what typically qualifies as a pilot for new instructional materials, but Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said it's needed in order to take advantage of the six-figure grant.
"This is a part of just understanding that this is not a usual grant or a usual pilot that comes to us," Rudolph said.
TechSmart CEO and founder Bruce Levin, speaking to Mountain View Whisman trustees on Jan. 24, touted the program as a "seamless progression" of rigorous courses designed to build computer science mastery from children as young as second grade through senior year of high school. It starts with simplified "block" coding and gradually transitions into syntactical lines of code, with a focus on the coding language Python in middle school.
But the secret to success, Levin said, is really in the program's focus on teachers, who need to go beyond just being a classroom monitor and facilitator -- they too need to learn to code. TechSmart essentially creates a new computer science department for the district, along with a teacher training "bootcamp" that transforms teachers into coding instructors.
"Our focus is really on teachers," he said. "How do you take a teacher of any background and give them rigorous professional development, give them tools, support, curriculum to enable them to teach computer science with the fidelity and the confidence of a software engineer? That's what we're trying to do."
Levin did not respond to multiple requests from the Voice for an interview over the course of two weeks. He launched the Seattle-based company in 2012, and the TechSmart curriculum has since been picked up by more than 30 school districts, primarily in California and Washington. Although the pilot has yet to begin, Mountain View Whisman is already listed on the company's website as a partner.
The earliest mention of TechSmart from the district came late last year, when it was announced that the Mountain View Education Foundation received the one-time $100,000 grant from Google to provide coding to students in Mountain View. Mountain View Whisman chose to partner with TechSmart to make use of the available funding, according to the December press release.
The decision to launch the program at Castro and Theuerkauf is twofold, Rudolph said. The principals and teachers at both schools largely agreed to pilot TechSmart and were willing participants, and it benefits children at the schools with the highest concentration of low-income and minority students, who might otherwise miss out on extracurricular STEM activities.
Local tech companies, whom are seen as potential partners for future funding of the program, also have an interest in boosting diversity in the field computer science.
"Here are two schools that have our highest population of Latino students, and it's a great opportunity to expose them to things other schools within our district already have through parent volunteers and through after-school programs," he said.
The district has a policy for adopting new curriculum that includes convening what it calls a Pilot Assessment and Review Committee, or PARC, which gives teachers, parents and community members a chance to review the curriculum and weigh in on adopting the program. The process was created in 2017 as a direct response to Teach To One, an expensive digital math program that was implemented in 2016 without board approval and was largely criticized by parents as a flawed program that skirted or outright violated the norms of testing new curricula. District officials responded to the outcry by dropping the program five months into its implementation.
But district officials say TechSmart is a "supplemental" program and therefore does not require a PARC, exempting it from the process. Core curriculum changes to math, English language arts and science require a full review of the materials and involvement from the community, but the "add-on" of coding activities don't require the same level of scrutiny. The board doesn't even need to approve the program, but it will still come back to the board next month for a vote, district officials said.
Rudolph told board members that lessons learned from Teach to One are still in effect as the district looks to adopt TechSmart. Funding and community buy-in was sought long before rolling out the program, which is why the coding exercises won't begin until fall 2019.
"In any other circumstance you get the grant, you start preparing and a couple months later you're already into it," Rudolph said. "And they (TechSmart) have been patient with us to know that the earliest we can start is next year, and part of that is because of our process."
The TechSmart presentation gave lofty promises of how coding lessons would be woven into all subjects, including the arts, and Levin specifically flagged coding in core academic subjects as an important part of the program. But it was unclear how these goals would be achieved.
When asked twice by board member Ellen Wheeler to give an example of how coding could be used in either language arts or social studies, Levin did not directly answer the question, instead stating that the exercises are mapped to national standards including Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. When pressed a third time, Levin said he would need to follow up with her at a later time.
The same question was asked by trustees ahead of the meeting in a staff Q&A, but again was not answered. District officials said that "content areas are built into the TechSmart platform," and that a future platform demonstration will help the district "better understand the complete program."
Also of concern is what would be lost in order to accommodate TechSmart. When asked in the Q&A what would be supplanted by the 30- to 45-minute coding lessons, district officials said each school would need to figure out how to fit the lessons into the schedule. Middle school will likely implement TechSmart as an elective class, Rudolph said at the board meeting.
Although Castro principal Terri Lambert and Theuerkauf principal Swati Dagar told trustees that teachers at both schools are on board with the decision to pilot TechSmart, it's unclear how much of a time commitment it will take for teachers to prepare for the launch of the program. Assistant Superintendent Cathy Baur said a combination of end-of-year and summer days will likely be devoted to professional development -- with compensation -- but she said she did not know how many days would need to be devoted to the program's "teacher training bootcamp."
Assuming the pilot goes well, Rudolph said the intent is to continue to seek funding from tech companies as a means to expand TechSmart to more schools in the district.
"We have a unique opportunity to try it out for a year and it's our hope that, if it goes well through this piloting process, that through additional funding from some tech companies in our neighborhood we will be able to continue this and move it out to other schools too," he said.