In CodeRVA, a high school experiment with hopes for a diverse region
Richmond Times-Dispatch. Justin Mattingly. December 03, 2017.

Colton Haden closes out Snapchat and takes off headphones still playing the rap music of Kodak Black. It’s the middle of the school day, and he’s working his way through a geometry assignment.

The 14-year-old freshman sits in a lounge chair wearing a Hopewell soccer hooded sweatshirt, representing his home school district. Haden, who is white, now makes the 40-minute commute to Richmond to study at CodeRVA, a new high school focused on computer science.

“It’s been a good adventure,” he said. “I’ve met friends I probably wouldn’t have met.”

That’s intentional. Planners of the nearly three-month-old magnet school set out to disrupt a regional — and national — trend toward increasingly racially segregated public schools.

A weighted lottery with diversity as a factor determined admissions to the now 93-student cohort of freshmen and sophomores, which is about 50-50 male-female; nearly 60 percent white; and nearly 40 percent students of color. More than half of students qualify for free or reduced meals, and 13 students have disabilities.

“The idea that you would intentionally build a student body that is reflective of the region, that’s a new thing in Richmond,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who recently co-authored a report on school and housing segregation.

“You don’t get systemic diversity until you make it a goal,” Siegel-Hawley said. “This is the closest we’ve come.”

For that reason, and many more, academic experts and school officials are eyeing the start-up closely as a potential solution to decades-old challenges and a model for the future of tech education.

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Alexandra Wright, a 13-year-old who has been taking computer science classes for years, sits a few feet away from Haden. The freshman, who is black, now takes pre-calculus and guides herself through lectures, practice problems and assignments — all on her computer.

Across the entire school, a 15,310-square-foot space, students like Haden and Wright mingle as they do their work. It’s an experience they are less likely to have in regular public schools, data show, and its objective of not only being a computer science school, but deliberately improving diversity, is a first for Richmond.

“Getting a diverse group of kids in the front door of a school is hard work, and CodeRVA has done that,” Siegel-Hawley said.

Across the Richmond area, white students make up 48 percent of school enrollment, yet 64 percent of white students’ classmates are also white. Black students, who make up 35 percent of enrollment, have 57 percent same-race classmates, according to “Confronting School and Housing Segregation in the Richmond Region” a September report co-authored by Siegel-Hawley.

That analysis spans about half of the school divisions feeding into CodeRVA — all but Amelia, Caroline, Charles City, Goochland, King and Queen, King William and Louisa counties.

“If you create public schools that reflect the diversity of our region, it’s going to benefit everyone and build understanding and tolerance across groups,” said Jesse Senechal, the interim director of the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium at VCU. “It’s certainly an experiment, and we’re watching it closely.”

So are federal officials. CodeRVA in late September became the first school in Virginia to receive the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The $6 million grant, administered over four years, aims to “assist in the desegregation of public schools by supporting the elimination, reduction and prevention of minority group isolation in elementary and secondary schools with substantial numbers of minority group students.”

The school opened in September with students from 13 area school divisions. It now serves 93 students — all freshmen and sophomores — with a focus on computer science. The school does not have many rules as it fleshes out its curriculum and instruction style, an experiment in both educational learning and diversity.

A governing body comprised of school board members from the 13 districts oversees the school and meets on a quarterly basis. A council of superintendents and business leaders also advises the school.

“It’s a real testament to what public education can be, and you don’t have to rely on a charter to innovate,” said Richmond School Board member Scott Barlow, 2nd District, who serves on the CodeRVA board.

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The first students arrive at the school, 2601 Durham St., shortly before 9 a.m. They cluster in integrated groups as they have high school conversations — crushes, sports and the ice cream social at the end of the day — while one student plays a ukulele. A student-led morning meeting, during which they review their self-created weekly plan, kicks off the day.

Students are broken up into groups and begin their work. Some go to longer tables in the middle of the room, while others find a comfortable chair on the side. Their work is self-paced with an atmosphere where the ends justify the means. The quick, high notes of Google Hangouts message alerts ping into the headphones most students are wearing as they message back and forth during class.

Subject periods run a little more than an hour. Small-group discussions led by the school’s three teachers provide more intimate instruction.

Students rotate through their subject blocks with lunch in between. On this day, the last Friday of October, all but a few students wear pink to cap off their spirit week and a penny war created by the student council to raise money for breast cancer awareness.

“Because we’re smaller, we’re able to give them these opportunities,” said Rebecca Hall, the math teacher. “The quiet ones are still the quiet ones, but we’re able to give them the opportunities that they might otherwise not get.”

The launch of CodeRVA comes as computer science in Virginia is on the rise.

Last month, the state became the first in the U.S. to adopt mandatory standards for computer science education. Other states have advisory standards, but Virginia is the first to require the lessons.

With CodeRVA, officials and academics hope the experiment of a computer science-centered school will work.

“When public schools put their heads together and their money together, they can do things other schools — public or private — haven’t even ventured to think they could do,” said Gail Hardinge, a member of the New Kent County School Board and chair of the CodeRVA board. “CodeRVA is a sign of the times. It’s the future of public education.”

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The school has continued to change since it opened this year. Much of the first week was focused on infrastructure and getting the normal start-up tweaks out of the way.

Since then, though, school administrators have gone so far as to develop a program that rewards students based on academic progress, giving them titles — manager to vice president to eventually CEO — that let them gain more autonomy over their school day.

The 93 students currently in the school are all underclassmen, but once they move into their junior and senior years, they will qualify for paid internships — about 20 hours per week for eight weeks — and work toward associate degrees.

“The first time around, we’re going to make some mistakes, but that’s OK,” said Michael Bolling, the school’s executive director. “We’ll adjust and get it right.”

There’s room for flexibility in the school’s curriculum. There’s not in who the students are and will be.

“The intentional diversity of the school supports a stronger pipeline for computer science,” Bolling said.

The federal grant will help the school expand its staff of six to include an outreach coordinator, grants manager, academic case manager and career counselor, among others.

“It may be early yet to be a model for people to chase down, but it’s a good start to ensuring equity,” said Barlow, the School Board member.

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