IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Modesto Schools Trying to Bring Students to Computer Science

Assembly Bill 2097 in California would make computer science a graduation requirement by 2030, and only 4 percent of K-12 students in Stanislaus County are currently enrolled in computer science courses.

hand pointing at computer code
(TNS) — Growing up in Modesto, Erik Zopeda thought his future would likely involve trades or construction. With his parents owning a landscaping business, that seemed to be the path laid out for him early on.

It wasn't until he took a coding class at Enochs High School that his plans changed to majoring in computer science in college next year at UC Merced.

"I'm glad I found computer science," Zopeda, 17, said. "I learned to be persistent, to be creative."

The Central Valley is no Bay Area, but the importance of tech and computer science skills remains significant for those charting their career paths. And though Modesto's primary industry is agriculture, there are plenty of other career opportunities available for young people in the area, such as cybersecurity and video game development.

Discovering these different options often begins in the classroom, where students can first encounter and acquire computer science skills.

In February, a bill was proposed to expand computer science education accessibility in California. It mandates that every public high school provide at least one computer science course. Known as AB 2097, the bill also sets forth computer science as a graduation prerequisite by the 2030-31 academic year.

"I'm happy that it helps bring computer science to more California kids," said Amy Pezzoni, a career technical educator in computer science at Modesto City Schools.

Pezzoni, an advocate for the bill, said that just as subjects like government are crucial for understanding how the country runs, computer science courses also should be obligatory. This ensures accountability in the tech sector and equips students with fundamental knowledge about technology.

Only 4 percent of K-12 students in Stanislaus County are enrolled in computer science courses. Women make up only one-quarter of that percentage, according to data from 2018.

Gregori High School recently was honored with the College Board's AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award for its efforts to broaden young women's participation in AP Computer Science Principles. This recognition celebrates 1,127 schools for their endeavors toward achieving gender equality in representation during the 2022-23 academic year.

Pezzoni said students themselves are the best recruiters. As an educator, she often encourages her students by saying, "Hey, I believe you'd enjoy this class. You should consider signing up."


Rudy Escobar, STEM and computer science coordinator at the Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE), said kids have to be self-motivated to pursue computer science.

"Computer science is not a priority because they don't see it in the environment they're living in," he said, referring to the county's agricultural base.

But Sanjay Bhan, the CTE coordinator at SCOE, said technology plays a crucial role in the ag sector, which could not thrive without it. Recent advancements in automation, for instance, have made agricultural farming machines, used to water and harvest, more efficient.

Agriculture is the fastest growing sector of tech in the next 20 to 30 years, added Pezzoni. In 2019, the industry attracted $3.4 billion in investments, soaring to nearly $5 billion by 2021, marking a record high.

Bhan said students don't have to relocate to the Bay Area for opportunities. They can opt to work remotely from Modesto or look for jobs here.

Daisy Mayorga, a computer scientist and co-founder of the tech-equity organization yüda, said numerous students in west Modesto, where she conducted workshops, noted a lack of access to computer science education, beyond a simple computer lab.

Through yüda, she has endeavored to attract tech companies to Modesto by holding events, facilitating community interaction and introducing children to technology from an early age.

Grace Dixon, a senior at Enochs High School, said most of her family worked in healthcare, which made her believe she would follow suit.

However, she stumbled upon a computer science class during her freshman year and deeply enjoyed it. She has decided to study computer science next year at CSU Stanislaus.

Dixon used to view software engineering as an unattainable career choice. However, acquiring coding skills and taking diverse computer science courses in high school has made that path more realistic and empowered her to pursue it.

"I found my niche and I was very grateful for it because I was like, 'Yes, I found my thing. I'm not gonna be a nurse,'" Dixon, 17, said.


Pezzoni acknowledged there are limited tech opportunities for students in the Valley. Additionally, those who did get jobs elsewhere often don't return.

"I thought that it was really sad that our community didn't get to benefit from our youth being successful and being able to do awesome things in tech," she said.

Pezzoni said she believes bringing industry representatives into the classroom is helpful. Through Enochs' computer science program, she has connected students with local tech employers, including LaMar Software and Bay Valley Tech, for networking.

On a field trip to CSU Stanislaus, Pezzoni's students met with professors in the computer science department, and she noticed one of her former students assisting with the tour.

"That's really fun to run into them in the wild and see what they're doing and how excited they are to do it," Pezzoni said.

Fresno native Theresa Gonzales, executive producer of the podcast "Latinas: from the Block to the Boardroom," emphasized the importance of companies in the Central Valley actively seeking out local talent and investing in the community.

"The first step is investing in the community to create the equity pipeline that is going to close the digital divide," Gonzales said. "You have to close it because if not, then you're going to be pulling people from the Bay Area and why not look in your own backyard."

©2024 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.