Zero Hour, Infinite Possibilities
It’s just after 7 A.M. on a foggy Seattle morning and while most teenagers here
are still thinking about getting out of bed, Room 127 on the Rainier Beach High
School campus is bustling. A documentary about underwater photography plays as students
scurry in, take their seats, and pull laptops and thick books from their backpacks.
“For us to be one of the only schools offering AP computer science means a great deal to our students and the community. This is helping open doors for kids and giving them a head start.”
Principal Dwane Chappelle
need all of you to start up that Java file of the codes I gave you, and finish the assignment that is due tomorrow,” says Matt Olivo, a Microsoft software developer and one of three volunteers teaching this zero period computer science course.
In the front row sits Ifrah Abshir, who has finished the assignment (writing code for a fractional calculator) and is now helping the girl sitting next to her. She often scans the room and offers help to classmates who need it. Opinionated and self-aware, she speaks with a wisdom that belies her age. “In Somalia, after the 8th grade, women can no longer attend school,” 15-year-old Ifrah shares about her native country. “I feel so privileged to be here, to have these teachers who come here on their own time.”
After finishing her assignment, Ifrah helps fellow classmates. “She sets the bar high as a young adult, I find myself learning from her,” says Principal Dwane Chappelle. “She has energy and enthusiasm, and the work habits to be successful in whatever she does.”
Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program, Ifrah and 32 other Rainier Beach students are taking AP computer science. The program brings high tech professionals into high school classrooms to offer computer science classes to school districts that can’t meet the needs on their own. Volunteers teach the classes before work, teaming up with school teachers who learn the material along with the students. The goal is to hand off the courses so the schools’ programs can grow. Currently in 70 schools across the United States, TEALS volunteers are teaching more than 3,300 students.
“I feel so lucky to go to a TEALS school—this is my favorite class,” Ifrah says. “There is another school down the street that has no computer science program at all. You work harder when you know you are one of the select few.”
Ifrah’s family moved from Somalia to neighboring Uganda during the Somali Civil War and then to the U.S. as the violence crossed the border. They connected with relatives in Philadelphia briefly before moving to the Pacific Northwest and making Seattle their home. Her parents and their 10 children live in a modest two story home in the Rainier Valley, about a mile from Ifrah’s school.
Ifrah and her younger sister wait for their brother to answer the door of their home in the Rainier Valley. The family, originally from Somalia, moved to the United States in 2001.
started TEALS last year after her math teacher recommended it. She excelled in the introductory course which teaches students how to write programs using smart phones. In that class, Ifrah discovered her love of programming and created a geometry game to help her little sister with homework. She enthusiastically signed up for the advanced section this year, adding the zero hour class to her schedule of chemistry, history, language arts, Spanish, math, and nutrition.
“My parents came to this country for the education system,” Ifrah says. “In Somalia, they wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Education is the most important thing in our family. If anyone ever tries to bust our ego, we go home and our parents build it back up.”
Talk to Ifrah for more than a few minutes and you’ll learn of her plans to be a pediatric oncologist. Big dreams run in the family. Her brother, an economics major at the University of Washington who will be the first family member to graduate from college, wants to be president of Somalia. Her younger sister wants to go to Harvard. Ifrah has her heart set on Johns Hopkins University, where she intends to major in medicine and minor in computer science. Ifrah’s father, owner of the Shiil Grocery and Halal Meat store, studied mathematics and passed his love for the subject on to his children. “We’re a family full of geeks,” Ifrah says with a smile.
Rainier Beach High School students learn to program a calculator in the AP computer science class taught by high tech professionals as part of TEALS, a Microsoft YouthSpark program.
the TEALS class is what sparked Ifrah’s desire to pursue computer science. Michael Braun, the Rainier Beach High teacher who runs the class with Microsoft volunteers, says many other students also see a future in the field.
“Students know that if they want a clear path to a stable good paying job, they must learn computer science,” Braun says. “This will guarantee them a salaried income versus an hourly wage. We have immigrant families who want more for their kids, math students who want more of a challenge, and kids interested in logic and problem solving. We are helping all of these students enter the digital world.”
Mr. Braun’s class doesn’t look like a typical AP computer science course because it isn’t. It’s a room full of people defying national trends. In the 2013-14 school year, 25 percent of TEALS students are female, double the industry average. And 28 percent of students in the program are underrepresented minorities, which is 5 times the industry average. In Mr. Braun’s class, those numbers are even higher.
Beach is a Title 1 school, meaning it has a high concentration of low-income students. More than 85 percent of the students are eligible for the free and reduced-lunch program and 95 percent are students of color.
“For us to be one of the only schools offering AP computer science means a great deal to our students and the community,” says Principal Dwane Chappelle. “This is helping open doors for kids and giving them a head start. It means so much to be able to provide these kind of future career opportunities.”
Closing the computer science learning gap and providing access to education is one of the focal points of Microsoft YouthSpark, our company wide initiative to create opportunities for 300 million young people worldwide over three years. At Rainier Beach High, word is spreading. Both parents and students are excited about the program and often express how fortunate they are to have TEALS at the school.
“There are four people in the classroom giving individualized attention to these students,” Braun says. “It’s a neutral ground and it’s enriching student education. They are no longer users, they are creators, and they will leave here with an impressive electronic portfolio.”
Ifrah walked into her first TEALS class, she barely knew how to turn on a computer. Now she wants to bring her skills to medical school and teach a programming class to patients and doctors in a hospital.
“I love computer science and I want to show as many people as I can,” she says. “The class helped me discover my passion. Maybe someone else has it too and they can learn from me.”