CSforALL Stories
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CSforALL Stories

Building an inclusive and equitable CS system in Ithaca NY, lessons learned on the way to CSforALL

Ithaca City School District (ICSD)

What does it look like to “Engage, Educate, and Empower Everyone” with computer science in Ithaca City School District (ICSD) in 2019? We seek to foster in all students and teachers the tools needed and vision for why and how computer science, computational thinking, digital skills, and agency are critical to being active citizens in the world. Committing to our goals of revisioning teaching and learning so that all of our 6000+ learners experience, understand and engage in the power of CS in their lives, was probably the easiest part of this journey. We knew we’d have to analyze and change systems, challenge old thinking, and invest in innovation to forge a creative, relevant and inclusive computing culture. In a district culture that values strong teacher independence, the work would not move forward by fiat. To succeed thus far, we’ve had to move like the Mississippi in spring — at times into places that flow easy, hitting full stops at barriers, and other times rushing in places you hadn’t seen or expected. We’ve come to savor each type of movement. Our work with CSforALL has sparked, supported and sustained this work for more than two years.

A key first step for us was to develop a leadership team to drive the work forward and to make sure we had a wide range of voices at the table. Ours includes teachers (elementary and secondary), teachers on special assignment (TOSA’s) and administrators who collaborate to strategize, implement, and advocate for the importance of computer science, computational thinking, digital literacy and agency. The diversity of our perspectives and breadth of our collective insight and experiences in the Ithaca school system has been critical to any successes we’ve had. Our work is anchored in ICSD’s commitment to three grounding priorities — teaching and learning innovations, culturally responsive teaching and learning practices, and inclusion. Helping us along the way has been our relationship with the CSforALL team, the CSforALL SCRIPT process, and strategic planning work from 2018–2019 and 2019–2020.

We first began trying to understand our current system, with an eye toward dismantling barriers to access and designing equitable and accessible experiences for our preK-12 students. Ithaca is a hub of incredible cultural diversity and world-class technological innovation. While our initial surveys told us that many students take part in a variety of activities, both in and out of school, in areas connected to computer science, it also exposed a wide disparity of experiences and access among students. The rich diversity of cultures and life experiences, our profound strength, is not yet reflected in those who take our highest level CS classes or pathways at the secondary level. We also know that weaving CS into the fabric of every students’ learning experience, across the curriculum, is key to each student seeing the relevance of CS learning in their world. How to begin the change?

Our multilayered effort seeks to move the work forward where we can when we can. Introductory pitches to all administrators led to activating them as allies in this work. At one middle school, the combination of a willing principal, a teacher new to a class that had a flexible curriculum, and a TOSA who was able to help lead the design, launch and co-teach for a time, created one of our biggest successes for this past year — an introductory Digital Media class that includes creative coding that reaches half of the 6th graders in our district. It’s a big step forward in our vision of equity — all of these students now have in their repertoire a way to use coding to learn in other languages, science, social studies, etc. Now we can work on building all teachers’ repertoire of integrating CS skills into their curriculum. We are working to grow this success, to create a cohesive experience for all middle schoolers in ICSD. Sometimes the work seems to flow easily.

Work at the high school level has been harder. To broaden student participation in higher level computing classes we already offer, we’ve had to peel back layers to understand the forces behind who takes which classes and why. How do students and families learn about classes? How can we influence change in that system? At times we felt as stuck as a river in a levee. But, slowly, with district level administration support, as well as resources from the NCWIT, we’ve begun to move. We’ve begun conversations with guidance counselors to seek common ground and support each other’s work. This also led to looking beyond the school doors, deepening community partnerships with organizations such as Ithaca Youth Bureau’s College Discovery Program and Cornell’s STEP program, to spread the word about course offerings more directly to students and families. Team members sometimes look like equal parts teachers and public relations outreach pros, the work is moving forward.

A second major goal of ours is to develop teacher capacity to have student learning anchored in practices that incorporate CS/CT and digital literacy, while also being culturally responsive, and incorporating project-based learning principles. In the summer of 2018, our TOSA’s and Administrators led over 200 PreK-12 teachers in a two-day professional development series, focused on what we called Lesson Redesign. This allowed a big leap forward in building awareness of the importance (and existence!) of our project. The work also led to relationships with teachers at all levels that TOSA’s used to build collaboration in the 2018–19 year. Insight from that summer work led us to seek a way for secondary teachers to have the deeper support and time needed to revise courses all students take. We spent months working in alliance with other district administration, reaching out to high school department chairs, tapping into networks of teachers we thought might be interested, and developing an application process that involved feedback from students, teachers and administrators. Finally, in January of 2019 we began our inaugural Secondary Course Redesign project. Over 25 teachers, from diverse disciplines including Spanish, Biology, Science, Art, Geometry, and more, are integrating CS principles and learning into courses that will reach students in the the 19–20 year. Analyzing this particular success, it feels due to dogged pursuit. As opportunities present themselves, we maneuver around obstacles as inexorably as water seeking movement across land.

In our 8 elementary schools, we are also developing the vision and supports for teachers and schools to weave creative computing into the academic fabric of students’ days. Whether by building administrators making time for “Intro to CS/CT” professional developments sessions for the entire teaching staff of schools, or though rich personal relationships our TOSA’s have built with individuals in schools over time, we have identified and reached out to early adopting teachers — those willing to invite us to model and test lessons together. In this way, we’ve begun building a rich repertoire of classes we can offer all students. These teachers spread the word in their schools, opening doors for our TOSA’s into classrooms, libraries, and spaces that might not have happened otherwise. The administrators on our team have moved the work in other powerful ways. In a partnership with Ithaca Public Education Initiative (IPEI) we obtained a grant to develop CS/CT curriculum through leveraging library media specialists. Their work will develop deeper capacity at schools, and have a great multiplier effect on the amount of students we can reach. 4th Graders at Cayuga Heights began dipping their toes into the Virtual Reality world to examine landforms, 3rd Graders at Belle Sherman learned about sequencing using Code.org’s lessons and BeeBots, and Enfield Elementary committed to STEM Fridays, where every grade level has an opportunity this spring to build skills with digital tools. Slowly, as water runs underground through connected spaces in soil, the work is seeping in.

These experiences of the past years have called us to be nimble as we search to move the work forward. This summer and the upcoming academic year will bring this team changes that will challenge us in ways we can’t anticipate. What will not change is the vision and commitment first sparked almost 3 years ago…Every ICSD student across race, class, gender, language, and ability level, will creatively and critically engage in representing and solving problems using computational and systems thinking. We will empower students to develop computer science, computational thinking, and digital literacy and agency skills to engage as learners, users and creators of knowledge.



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The national hub for the Computer Science for All movement, making high-quality computer science education an integral part of K-12 education in the US.