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Nonprofit Extends Coding Education Partnership to Pittsburgh

Schools, foundations and a nonprofit are working together to help black and Latino boys learn to code.

by Sean D. Hamill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / April 10, 2017

(TNS) -- When his high school had someone come and talk to students about what software coding was, Myeir Woodard was not inspired.

“He just explained what coding is and it did not sound interesting,” Myeir, 15, a freshman at Sto-Rox High School, said Friday while attending the Adonai Center for Black Males conference at the Sheraton Hotel at Station Square. “But these guys, the way they talked about how you could design video games, and it could help your career? Now I’m interested.”

“These guys” were the employees of All Star Code, a New York City-based nonprofit that teaches African-American and Latino teenage boys how to code and become an entrepreneur during free, six-week-long summer programs. This coming summer, the 4-year-old organization will expand outside New York City for the first time and host a program for 20 boys at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

During a presentation to Myeir and six other teenage boys at the Adonai conference Friday, the All Star Code team convinced many of them that coding was worth learning.

“We came to Pittsburgh because Pittsburgh is on the eve of a renaissance in tech that is going to create a great pie of jobs,” Machi Davis, All Star Code’s director of programming, told the boys. “We want to make sure that young black men like yourselves get a piece of it.”

Mr. Davis and his colleague, Alberto Tornes, director of partnerships, wowed them with tales of learning the skills that could lead to making video games, or an app that would be cool to use, and entering a field that can command a $135,000 starting salary. The vision they presented clearly got passed along beyond the seven boys in the room.

During the conference lunch break, another dozen boys found All Star Codes’ table, where they began the application process to try to get one of the 20 slots for the program this coming summer. Mr. Torres said he hopes to increase the program to 60 boys in summer 2018.

“We’ll take the results from this year and show it to the schools and the foundations,” Mr. Tornes said. “The schools and the foundations we’re talking to want to see results.”

The foundation and corporate support the program gets in Pittsburgh will largely determine how much it grows, said Christina Lewis Halpern, All Star Code’s founder and executive director.

All Star Code is paying for most of the $230,000 startup costs for the program this year, with some local support. But the future is dependent on that local support, Ms. Lewis Halpern said.

“How we grow the summer after this depends on how much corporation, foundation and university support we get,” she said in a phone interview.

Ms. Lewis Halpern is the daughter of Wall Street legend Reginald Lewis, who was for a time the richest black person on the Forbes list of richest 400 Americans. He died in 1993 when Ms. Halpern Lewis was 12, and he left behind a family foundation that helped Ms. Lewis Halpern start All Star Code five years ago.

She said she came up with the idea to start the nonprofit when she realized that if her father were still alive, he would be involved in technology and “he’d probably be on the board of Facebook.”

But when she was exploring the creation of a nonprofit to help improve diversity in the technology fields, she found multiple efforts aimed at increasing the number of girls and women, but none aimed at helping boys of color.

“It’s a shame and stupid that there are no learn-to-code programs except ours for black and Latino boys,” she said.

The New York City program also started with just 20 boys four years ago and has more than doubled the size of each year’s class since. It has had 140 boys go through the program in its first three years. Forty of those boys are now college-aged men and all of them are attending a college or a university, with over 90 percent taking computer science.

“We know we are becoming a pipeline to colleges,” Mr. Tornes said. “We want to show Pittsburgh we can do that here, too.”

Ms. Lewis Halpern had been looking to expand outside New York for a while, and Pittsburgh had long been on the short list of expansion possibilities.

But she decided to make Pittsburgh the first city for expansion after attending the White House Frontiers Conference here last September, when she said she saw the strength of cooperation among the corporate, foundation, university and government communities that would be crucial to the success of the program.

A friend of the program, Lara Washington, president of the Allegheny County Rehabilitation Corp., worked with her to set up a meeting in February for All Star Code’s staff to make their pitch to 35 members of the foundation, corporation and university communities.

They received some small grants from that, and, in the biggest step, Chatham University agreed to be the host site for the first summer program, which will run five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. — with free lunch — for six weeks in July and August. All Star Code also provides free transportation to and from the program and every student gets a Microsoft Surface 4 laptop computer to keep.

“We were very excited about it” said David Finegold, Chatham’s president. “We thought their mission aligned very well with what we’re about at Chatham in increasing access to opportunity.”

Kevin Carter, founder and CEO of Adonai, had a similar reaction when All Star Code asked about being a partner.

“Even some of the language they use is similar to what we talk about in helping them to be successful,” he said.

That language already has grabbed the attention of at least 25 boys who had applied by Friday.

“I applied because I really like gaming,” said Jeremiah Alford, 15, a sophomore at Westinghouse High School in Homewood. “I want to make ideas for this game I play now, Brave Frontier. Hopefully, this teaches me how to get into that.”

All Star Code is still taking applications for the 20 slots available this summer through its website at

©2017 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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