Computer science camp on sitcoms is for nerds, but at Hanshaw Middle School in one of Modesto’s poorest neighborhoods, it’s seen as a game changer.
About 300 south Modesto families crowded into a Tuesday night meeting this spring to hear more about the community-supported program designed to give 24 kids a leg up on a high-paying, high-tech future. Some 120 students applied, a process that included writing an essay and a phone interview.
The two dozen students who made the cut, half girls and half boys, started with a seven-week summer session. The program continues with weekly classes at a neighborhood church and sessions at the school in summers to come. The plan is to keep this group together for at least three years, four if possible, adding a new group of incoming seventh- and eighth-graders each year.
“We got these top students this far. We want them to continue. We definitely do not want to lose track of them,” said program lead Emanuel Escamilla, a UC Berkeley graduate heading to Harvard this fall for graduate studies in theology, then on to law school.
Trying to simplify how coding works for a visitor, he explained, “It’s like your dog. You tell it what to do and it does it.”
Seventh-grader Amalia Avalos, 11, talking as she worked, said she likes making objects move or change shape just by changing the numbers, but there’s a lot of trial and error.
“What’s frustrating is trying to make it straight. Sometimes it goes too long and looks weird,” she said.
The group meets each Tuesday and Wednesday, spending about two hours working free lessons available to all from Khan Academy or Code.org, and one hour working on less tangible job skills, such as lunchline etiquette.
To help them understand the doors coding skills can open, Escamilla spends about 15 minutes out of the three-hour class showing photos and video clips on the websites of top colleges. This day he showed Harvard, starting with a view of the freshman residence hall and dining area.
“That’s their house?” kids asked incredulously. “They live like rich people,” said an awestruck young voice. “How do you get in?” asked one boy. Another wondered aloud if you had to buy time at a college, like a ticket.
“Are you rich?” “No, look at his shoes,” two boys asked and answered in Spanish. He is not rich, Escamilla assured them with a chuckle, but he understands why they ask.
Escamilla spent his teen years in the neighborhood, graduating from Davis High before heading off to Cal.
“Since I’ve been in college, I’ve wanted to give back,” Escamilla said. “These kids need opportunities.”
It is that neighborhood connection that makes the program work, said James Bates of Datapath, one of the program’s sponsors. “Too many times we try to ride our white horse instead of backing something that came from the community,” Bates said.
He especially liked the equal seats for girls and boys. “Computer science is such a male-dominated field. Women bring a different factor to working with customers, and I think you need that,” Bates said. “But when we put up positions, hardly any women apply.”
The Modesto company and other donors are paying for a field trip to Stanford and Google headquarters later this summer for the group, about $1,000, and a Google Chromebook for every student completing the seven-week starter course.
Modesto City Schools provides the computer lab. Lunch is free at the Salvation Army Red Shield Center next door.
The computer science program was a collaboration brought together by the South Modesto Partnership. President Jose Sabala said the fledgling nonprofit works to bring together faith, business and government groups to help the neighborhood.