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Oakland Teacher Bringing Girls to Computer Science

Long interested in bridging educational gaps for women and people of color, a teacher at Bret Harte Middle School in California has inspired students and recruited them to computer studies with all-girls classes.

Women in tech
(TNS) — Growing up, Chantel Parnell would round up all the kids in her neighborhood to hold "school" on her front lawn.

Toting a chalkboard and her clipboard, she'd teach her neighbor-students arithmetic in her free time.

In high school, Parnell worked in a local elementary school in her community of south Los Angeles. While a student at the women's college Bryn Mawr, she helped coordinate a tutoring program for high school students.

"I've always wanted to be in this field," said Parnell, an educator at Oakland's Bret Harte Middle School honored by the district with a Teacher of the Year award in May.

After graduating from Bryn Mawr, Parnell made her dreams a reality. She joined Teach for America, was placed in the Bay Area and has spent the past decade at Bret Harte.

Parnell was recognized partly for her innovation in the classroom: She's pioneered a number of computer science and animation courses at her school, many of which are all-girls.

Parnell's classes could help create a pipeline of women in computer science as Bay Area technology companies try to diversify their ranks. Despite the high job demand, computer science is still a largely male-dominated field in America. Though jobs are projected to grow by 19 percent, women earn only 18 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees in the United States.

But Parnell didn't have a computer science background. When she first suggested introducing a beginner's computer science class, she only had her undergraduate degree in mathematics and a minor in education to prepare her. She was honest with her students, and told them, "I'm new at this, I don't know anything about computer science." But she reassured them, "we are going to figure it out together."

Rosemary Gaona, a recent high school graduate, was a student in one of those first computer science courses while she was at Bret Harte. She said Parnell "taught us so much during that span, and she always made sure we felt uplifted."

As part of the only all-girls computer science class in the district, Gaona said Parnell would often reference her time at Bryn Mawr and tell the girls, they could "do whatever, as long as you believe in yourself."

"That really inspired me," she added.

Gaona is going to UC Davis next year to study animal science.

Parnell said she believes in the mission of female education and always makes sure she has an all-girls class on her schedule. She's found plenty of support at Bret Harte.

"As long as there is underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, we should continue to ensure our students have access to computer science," Principal April Harris-Jackson said via email.

The largest share of students at Bret Harte identify as Black or African American, making up 36 percent of the total population according to data from the 2018-19 school year. Hispanic or Latino students make up 34.2 percent followed by Asian students at 13.3 percent. Over 85 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 31.1 percent are English learners. Nearly 5 percent of students are experiencing homelessness. Gaona said her class was very diverse.

Bret Harte eighth-grader Airieanna Murrell said she liked learning in an all-girls environment.

"It was people that understood what I was going through," she said. "We definitely need more people — especially Black women — but women in general in coding."

Parnell's creativity in the classroom helped create several exciting opportunities. Her computer science and animation students presented at the first Future Trailblazer Challenge, hosted by, facing off with students from other schools in a "Shark Tank" style competition in May 2019. Her students used coding and a 3-D printer to build a solution to their selected problem, school shootings.

At another event, 10 of her students met with acclaimed soccer player and UNICEF ambassador David Beckham to speak about some of the challenges facing them and their classmates in November of 2019.

Parnell makes sure it's the students who shine: "It's always about letting my students do their thing and I'm sitting in the background," she said.

Harris-Jackson has been working with Parnell since her first year of teaching at the Oakland middle school.

"She has grown in the way she reflects on her teaching," she said. "She does not settle for good enough. She seeks feedback and makes adjustments."

Harris-Jackson explained Parnell has a "warm demander" teaching style, setting high expectations and guiding students to meet those expectations.

"Her teaching style makes her an exceptional teacher because she doesn't just teach students the technical skills of coding, she also teaches students how to be learners," she added.

Murrell described Parnell as down to earth, always going out of her way to make sure students are succeeding.

"Even when she had a lot on her plate, she made sure to be kind," she said.

It hasn't always been an easy journey. But she's had help along the way. While Teach for America got her foot in the door, she grew her computer science knowledge with the Mills Teacher Scholars, and continued her professional development as an Agency by Design teacher fellow. And she's had to innovate and learn again, adjusting to virtual education after the district closed schools through much of the year.

"At the beginning it was super challenging," she said of helping students engage with material and with each other as they once did in a classroom.

But no matter what she's changing up or adjusting to help ease the transition to online education, she's always keeping students at the forefront. "That's always been my framework from the very beginning," she explained.

After receiving the recognition from the district, Parnell said, "the tears just started falling."

"I can't even explain it, I've been doing this for so long, and to be recognized, it's really amazing," she said. "This award is for everyone, every student I've had, every teacher I've had, every mentor I've had along the way that's believed in me."

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