Can Entrepreneurs Help Reinvent Public Schools?
Durham School Board joins growing national movement to get entrepreneurs involved in education
BY LAURA BAVERMAN
Filed Under: NEWS: Startups
A Microsoft engineer wanted to do something about the lack of computer science education in Seattle public schools. So he contacted a local high school and began to teach 12 students how to code.
That was five years ago. Today, his program called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) has 280 software engineers volunteering as teachers and mentors to 3,300 students in 70 U.S. high schools. They've developed computer science curriculum that teachers use to train students for 21st century technology careers.
And their big goal is to get computer science education in every high school.
That's also a wish of the entrepreneurial community growing in Durham. And those startup founders and workers weren't afraid to speak it at yesterday's focus group with Durham Board of Education Chair Heidi Carter and Vice Chair Minnie Forte-Brown.
The Board is taking a collaborative approach to finding the next leader for its 33,400 student school district. Though it's hired a national recruiter to identify candidates, the job description will be written with the help of the community. The focus group at American Underground Tuesday was the third this week. Board members expect to finalize a candidate profile by Friday and to post it around the nation in coming days and weeks.
Across the country, educators are searching for new ways of thinking about and administering education. Budgets continue to rise, governments are setting higher expectations for teachers and students and yet, the United States continues to fall behind other countries in performance in subjects key to industry (like math, science and technology knowledge).
In New York City, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs banded together with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to first create a software engineering high school (now, there's the New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education (csnyc), bringing tech curricula to all NYC public school students). In Cincinnati, where I'm from, a group of CIOs and CTOs from large and small companies in town hire high school interns and host technology camps and workshops. Called INTERalliance, their goal is to get students interested in technology careers and ready them for the job descriptions of tomorrow.
Management consultant Esther Campi shared that Atlanta's Chamber of Commerce helped place public school students as interns into 300 local companies each year.
In Durham, like in many startup communities, there are a handful of education technology startups tackling various aspects of the field.
But the American Underground gathering was a first step toward more public-private collaboration in Durham. About 20 entrepreneurs participated, some of whom have children in Durham schools, others who have or might someday hire Durham school graduates.
Their suggestions for the next superintendent included spending at least a day each month in the classroom teaching students. "At small startups, we see CEOs doing hands-on work with employees, and things run smoothly and effectively," one man said.
They suggested the new person develop curricula that trained students in skills relevant to workplaces today, like database management or mobile app development. Said Adam Covati of Argyle Social and parent to a three-year-old daughter, "We want kids going to school expecting to have a high tech job, not a Walmart job or a physical labor job. (...) I'm looking for a school that is teaching kids of tomorrow the skills they need."
Reputation management and marketing are key tasks for the next superintendent, many participants said. They were surprised to hear about the STEM and technology programs that already exist at some of the district's primary and secondary schools—The perception is that the schools aren't strong and that many students aren't motivated and distract the kids who are there to learn.
One attendee suggested that a branding and marketing effort could help Durham be known for involving secondary education in the startup energy in town, just like Silicon Valley is known for collaboration between universities and private industry.
But the bulk of the conversation focused on what Durham schools could do to better prepare students for the types of jobs startups have available. Besides coding skills, which many said are sorely needed, students need soft skills like the ability to solve problems and not give up when a task is difficult. And teachers need to be taught to encourage them.
"There is a lot of tech in the RTP area—high-paying jobs—and to be perfectly honest, for lots of those jobs, we relocate people," said Taylor Mingos, CEO of Shoeboxed. "It'd be awesome to have them made in Durham."
Many in the group said they'd get involved to make technology training happen.
So what's next?
First, a new superintendent. And second, a plan to take those entrepreneurs up their offer. And to start small. That's how efforts like TEALs and csnyc become powerful movements and grow.
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