K-12 Computer Science Gets Budget Boost

— Daniel Berti

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers have budgeted $550,000 this year to train K-12 public school teachers in computer science to address the high demand for computer science skills in Virginia’s workforce.

This is the first year money will be routed directly to educational non-profit CodeVA for this purpose. CodeVA, established in 2014, has trained over 2,000 public school teachers since its inception, and has sponsored several bills in the General Assembly to address the need for computer science training in Virginia public schools.

Chris Dovi, executive director of CodeVA, said the amount needed to provide the necessary teacher training statewide is $1.3 million per year -- more than double what they’ll receive from the state.

The proposed budget allots an additional $1.35 million to the Virginia Department of Education to support K-12 computer science initiatives -- money that will be used to provide summer and afterschool computer science programs for students, and to provide career exposure and work-based learning opportunities in computer science fields for high school students.

The Department of Education is also working to create a computer science curriculum, instructional resources and assessments to help teachers get ready for their classes. Timothy Ellis, computer science specialist at the Department of Education, says Virginia is one of the first states in the country to develop a curriculum framework in the subject.

“This is going to help teachers prepare, identify key vocabulary, and answer essential driving questions that can push instruction forward in a meaningful way,” Ellis said.

Virginia has become a hotspot for computer science and technology jobs in recent years. The state currently has over 33,000 unfilled computer science jobs, and ranks first in the country for per capita computer science jobs, and fifth in overall computer science jobs nationwide.

Ellis said the Department of Education is approaching K-12 computer science learning with a sense of urgency to keep up with the demands of the workforce, and the most effective way to ensure students have access is to integrate computer science learning into core courses.

“Computer science is the 21st century skill. Every job going into the future is going to have some degree of computer science to it,” Ellis said. “We’re hoping that the instruction as it pertains to computer science will happen in a much more pervasive fashion.”

The goal is for teachers in all subjects, especially at the lower grade levels, to include some computer science teaching in their courses so Virginia students will have equal access to the subject.

“If we’re going to get anything done, the best way to do it is to have it integrated in those early grade levels,” said Chris Dovi, executive director of CodeVA. “It’s really about making sure every child has access and exposure to computer science, and early.”

Training teachers to include computer science learning in their courses hasn’t been easy, however. According to Code.org, a national educational non-profit, universities in Virginia did not graduate a single new teacher prepared to teach computer science in 2016.

Keisha Tennessee, a CodeVA facilitator and computer science specialist at CodeRVA Regional High School, said teacher preparation is going to be the biggest challenge as Virginia expands its computer science programming.

“I think parents are on board, students are on board, it’s really just going to be, who’s going to serve those students,” Tennessee said.

Daniel Berti is a Virginia-based reporter and recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. Follow him on Twitter.

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