Virginia Beach Students Learn Computer Science at Juvenile Detention Center

The students, who are required to receive education while they are held in detention centers, are taught the basics of coding.

by Mike Connors, The Virginian-Pilot / December 3, 2018

(TNS) - Students huddled in front of computers Thursday morning, using coding to create their own musical beats.

Across the hall, others worked on coding for a sports video game. A few designed their own online art displays.

It had the feel of a typical school day. Except that the students were not in typical classrooms. They were in a juvenile detention center.

State law says children in law enforcement custody must still receive education. As of Thursday, 58 students were taking classes inside Virginia Beach's detention center. Most were between grades five and 12, though 20 were at the college level.

Their schedule is similar to that in Virginia Beach's high schools. They take core classes like English, math and science. They also receive enrichment periods that delve into other subjects. If they're there long enough, they take state-mandated Standards of Learning exams, just like other students.

Nine teachers help the students, said Charles Foster, principal at the center. They work for the school division but funding for the program comes from the state.

One challenge for those teachers is that it's tough to get to know students and understand how they learn best. While educators in traditional settings have about 180 days with a set group of youngsters, the center's enrollment is constantly changing. Some are there for months, others as briefly as one day, Foster said.

The goal is to help them find skills they might want to pursue once they're out of detention.

"A lot of what we do is exposing them, giving them opportunities to learn," Foster said.

On Thursday morning, students received a visit from Julia Carson, a curriculum developer for CodeHS, an organization that helps schools teach computer science. She was giving them an early start on national Computer Science Education Week, which begins Monday.

Carson first explained coding – which is essentially the tasks involved in creating websites, apps, computer software and other technology. The students did not emote much as they looked on.

However, they soon sat down at computers and went to work on the music, sports and arts assignments. The enthusiasm level jumped. Two students repeatedly shared headphones so they could critique each other's musical beats. They eagerly brought over staff to share their sounds.

Karif Walloe, a counselor at the center, liked what he heard and bobbed his head in approval. But he pushed the students to do better.

"Just keep working with it," Walloe said.

It often takes students time to warm up to new topics, said Guy Barnes, a teacher at the center. But they usually buy in.

Such learning can prove life-altering, Barnes said. Students are removed from negative peer pressures. And they must adapt to a new environment with set guidelines.

Rules hang from one wall. Among them: Enter class quietly; follow directions promptly; raise your hand and wait to be acknowledged.

"They're going to be back in our community," Barnes said. "We want them to be productive members of society."

One high school-age student said he knew about coding before Thursday. But he thought that it'd be extremely tough to understand.

However, he handled all three assignments during the lesson.

"It gave me something to think about to do in the future," he said.

©2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.