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Digital Pioneers Academy Prioritizes Digital Equity, Compsci

The Washington, D.C., academy was founded with a focus on computer science education and equitable access to technology, achieving a 50-50 boys-to-girls ratio in computer science before the disruptions of COVID-19.

A student works on one of the devices provided by the Digital Pioneers Academy to promote digital equity.
Digital Pioneers Academy Facebook page
While some schools only began to emphasize digital instruction and technology as a subject when COVID-19 forced them to embrace virtual learning, Digital Pioneers Academy in Washington, D.C., started there two years before, and found itself prepared for the series of adaptations it would have to make.

In a recent webinar hosted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in partnership with Google, the school’s CEO Mashea Ashton said the school was founded in 2018 on the basis of a computer science-centered curriculum to quickly tackle gender and talent gaps in STEM-related professions. The school has also achieved a 2:1 device ratio for students in efforts to address the digital divide, according to Ashton.

“Our culture is built on the foundational idea that computer science is for everyone — all genders, races and incomes,” she told Government Technology, adding that the school serves “some of the most under-resourced neighborhoods” in Washington, D.C.

“Our student body is 99 percent Black, and 98 percent of our scholars qualify for free or reduced lunch,” she later added. “We require our scholars to learn computer science at every grade level, putting all of our scholars on a path to success in these high-demand fields if they so choose.”

Digital Pioneers Academy's focus on encouraging female students, in particular, to take compsci courses and make the field less male-dominated helped advance the school's efforts to achieve a 50-50 boys-to-girls ratio in computer science before COVID-19, according to an email from the school.

While the school had the tech needed to make the shift to online learning during COVID-19 in 2020, the boys-to-girls ratio in computer science fell back to 60-40, partly due to the shift. Now, Ashton said, the school is focusing on recruiting girls, and teaching technical skills that students are most interested in, such as app building, so they'll gain job skills for the technology field.

“Every day, we show our female scholars that they belong in these fields, that they can learn and enjoy this kind of work, and we rely on a fantastic team of mentors and role models to guide them through their time at DPA. It’s important that we expose all students, regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic background, to this field in order to fuel lifelong interest," she said. "It’s also crucial that we address this gap because these careers are some of the most high-demand, high-paying jobs out there."

Ashton said one of the biggest lessons most schools like hers learned during the pandemic is to remain adaptable to unexpected changes to curriculum and instruction. Like many schools, she said, the academy had to change everything overnight to make the shift to online learning in 2020 when schools across the country closed their doors.

“Our educators had to learn how to best teach and serve our scholars. Our scholars had to learn how to take classes online,” she said, noting the school ensured that every student had a Google Chromebook and reliable Internet access. “Thanks to these actions and the support of our entire community, we’ve achieved a 94 percent daily attendance rate during remote learning and 94 percent family satisfaction.”

Ashton said that when the school was first founded, the D.C. area had more than 10,000 unfilled jobs in computing. She said the school has continued its focus on a curriculum model that’s aligned with Advanced Placement Computer Science standards, with the goal of helping all students in grade 10 to take and pass the AP exam.

In addition, she said, the school intends students to “master two programming languages by graduation,” which she believes is feasible when educators teach in-demand tech skills as early as possible.

“At first, computer science can seem intimidating, but like many subjects, when students are given exposure at earlier ages, it doesn’t seem quite as daunting,” she said. “We believe computer science is for everyone, and when students are given access to a quality education with dedicated educators, they will thrive.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.