Capitol Alert

Want your kids to learn new tech skills? Tell their schools to apply for this grant

Fourth-graders, from left, Quentin Lipscomb, Connor Keehner, Kayla Richwine and Jazmine Savorn write computer code.
Fourth-graders, from left, Quentin Lipscomb, Connor Keehner, Kayla Richwine and Jazmine Savorn write computer code. Sacramento Bee file

Thousands of K-8 students will soon be able to take advantage of free after school coding classes that will be funded under California’s latest state budget.

The $15 million pilot program approved by the Department of Education earlier this month will allow more than 4,000 after school sites to apply for grants of up to $80,000 over three years.

The program aims to offer kids a high-quality coding curriculum, keep lower-income students in a safe environment and prepare them for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Michael Funk, director of the education department’s Expanded Learning Division, said low-income schools with a high proportion of kids on free or reduced meals will be prioritized.

“Too often, our lowest-income students don’t have those opportunities,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who pushed for the funding.

After school sites in Los Angeles County would be eligible for $4.2 million in funding — 28 percent of the program’s total. Sites in and around Sacramento County could receive up to $900,000, according to a formula released by the education department.

The program requires after school sites to offer an hour of coding instruction per day for a minimum of 60 days. The classes must also offer entry-level digital literacy skills. Grant money may be used to hire coding staff and support their travel expenses. It can also be used for software, field trips, classroom activities and guest speaker appearances.

The first round of awards should be announced in December, according to McCarty.

Margaret Gray, director of education and workforce preparedness for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said she hopes the program will help close gender and minority gaps in STEM-related fields.

“There is definitely a disproportionate representation of men in the computer science field,” Gray said. “The after school time is a place where the opportunity gap grows larger because parents that have the means can pay for higher-quality after school programs.”

While the program’s intentions may be positive, Linda Bidrossian, senior vice president of public policy for the Bay Area Council, says the devil is in the details. She said the coding instructors should not be traditional classroom teachers. Instead, she wants to see the program incorporate industry perspectives.

“If you get industry in partnership with traditional teachers, the teacher will be learning and students will get direct access to people working in these jobs,” Bidrossian said.

Although the three-year pilot program targets lower-income communities, McCarty would like it to become a model for a statewide program that might also include more middle-class families.

“This is a start,” McCarty said. “If this is successful, maybe we can look at further participation for all California kids. But we had to start somewhere.”