Oct 31 2006

L.A. High Schools Add Computer Science To Their Course Lists

Discover how Los Angeles high schools make Advanced Placement computer science courses part of the curriculum.

Two Summers back, Nigel Nisbet didn’t have much use for sunglasses. After a week-long training course, the Van Nuys High School math teacher spent his vacation days learning Java computer programming.

That fall, he was teaching students that same programming language. Now in his second year teaching Advanced Placement (AP) computer science, Nisbet is amazed at how far he and his students have come.

“I taught this and students passed,” he says. “There’s nothing quite like that.”

Throughout Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), teachers like Nisbet, who had never taught programming, are now teaching college-level courses on the subject, thanks to the Computer Science Equity Collaborative, a partnership between LAUSD and the University of California at Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Graduate School of Education and Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The partnership, which resulted from a National Science Foundation (NSF) study of three L.A. high schools exploring the lack of females and minorities in computer programming, aims to increase the number and diversity of students taking AP computer science in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district.

In just two years, LAUSD has more than doubled its computer science class offerings, increased its Latino AP computer science enrollments more than fivefold, more than quadrupled the number of females and nearly doubled the number of African-Americans in those courses.

“These increases break the myth that low-income students are not interested in computing,” says Jane Margolis, a UCLA researcher who led the NSF study and formed the collaborative. “Kids in every school and neighborhood today are into computers. It is a question of what learning opportunities and resources are available.”

Before Nisbet, just one teacher at Van Nuys taught computer science, and the subject was available only to students in the school’s math/science magnet.

“AP computer science had such a geeky, tech-type feel to it,” Nisbet explains. “I think through this program we’ve really turned the image of the course around.”

The program, says Nisbet, “speaks volumes to what you can get students to achieve if you look outside traditional means of recruitment.” And, he notes, the buzz around computer science continues to build. “Bit by bit, you gather momentum and it takes on a life of its own,” he says.


The problem is far from exclusive to L.A. While females represented 54.7 percent of all U.S. AP test-takers in 2004, they made up only 15 percent of AP computer science examinees, according to the College Board, which runs the AP program. Latino and Hispanic students make up 13.1 percent of AP test-takers — higher than their 12.8 percent representation of U.S. school enrollments — but only 5.4 percent of those who take the AP computer science exam.

“Computer science has become a new knowledge of the 21st century, a knowledge that opens doors in all industries,” says Margolis, co-author of Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women Studying Computer Science, about the shortage of females in college computer science programs.

“It’s ironic because the nation keeps talking about this shortage of science professionals and the gathering storm,” she adds. “But this knowledge remains so exclusively white and Asian male.”

A big reason for the lack of access to computer science classes — besides equipment shortages and stereotypes about computer-science “types” — is the emphasis on core subjects, Margolis says. Under-resourced schools have a hard enough time attracting qualified math and English teachers, so in order to fulfill expectations from state standards and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, principals must devote their faculty to those subjects rather than electives.


Thanks to California’s Digital High Schools program, an initiative to boost student achievement by 2001 using technology, L.A.’s 120 eligible high school programs had $100,000 million in grants and matching funds to cover equipment, training and support. Schools throughout the district did a great job teaching students to use technology applications.

“What I didn’t see were producers of that knowledge, how that technology is created,” says Todd Ullah, LAUSD’s director of secondary science. So when Margolis asked him if she could study the computer science offerings in L.A. schools and offered to help expand them, Ullah was thrilled.

The past two summers, the collaborative has trained 50 teachers to conduct AP computer science classes. Attendees have run the gamut, from teachers with no programming background to those like Juan Palomares at Belmont High School, who had been teaching computer science for years, but had to learn a new programming language since the AP exam’s recent switch from C++ to Java.

“My students and I are learning together through this partnership,” Palomares says.


In addition to training, the collaborative has placed great emphasis on recruitment. It started with the deputy superintendent, who sent out letters to 11 local district superintendents, encouraging principals to offer AP computer science. In exchange, teachers would be eligible for free training.

The collaborative also urged teachers to talk to guidance counselors about recruiting a wider array of students. Teachers were asked to consider all students who had taken the prerequisite Algebra 2, and to talk to them about the career possibilities afforded to those with computer programming skills.

Through the program, teachers and their students get to attend periodic AP Readiness workshops at the UCLA campus, which is another big draw for students.

Now that the program is growing, a big challenge is financing new equipment. Palomares’ computer lab, paid for with Digital High Schools funds, is five years old, so he and his students are searching for funding to replace equipment. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the collaborative has definitely fueled the will.

“It’s just been a dream,” Ullah says of the program. “It is a great story, and I think it’s worth shouting about.”


Los Angeles Unified School District is the current winner of CDW•G’s Tinfoil Star Award, which honors educators who use technology to enhance learning. To submit a nomination, visit edtechmag.com and click on the “feedback” button to send an e-mail.

Melissa Solomon is a writer in Austin, Texas.