Phoenix Coding Academy Aims to Prepare Low-Income Students for High-Tech Jobs

As Arizona aspires to become a leader in the nation's tech industry, a new school in Phoenix is set to help students from low-income families gain the skills they'll need to take advantage of an emerging industry.

The Phoenix Coding Academy is focused on computer coding and technology. Located just north of downtown, the public school opened its doors to its first ninth-grade class last week and may be the first institution of its kind in the nation.

Nearly 100 students — about 40 of them female — are enrolled. Most are Latino and come from low-income families, reflective of the Phoenix Union High School District's demographics. The school plans to incrementally expand to 400 students and cover grades 9-12.

Principal Seth Beute said the idea for the school came after educators from the district noticed that the metro area was booming with tech companies but didn't have enough workers, particularly women and those from communities of color, to fill the jobs.

"Our district saw it as an opportunity to have a new small school focused on computer science, and coding in particular, as a way to meet the needs of the local industry and then at the national scale," Beute said.

Any student can apply to attend the school, though priority is given to students within its home district.

Beute said students' grades were taken into account during the admission process, but that was not the only factor considered. He said the application required an essay as well as an interview during which students are asked about their interests and why they want to attend the school.  

"The main thing we were looking for is students' interest in technology, and then a real genuine interest in being active participants in their education," Beute said.

The Phoenix Coding Academy is the third specialty small school to open in the Phoenix Union High School District. The other two are Bioscience High School and Franklin Police and Fire High School.

What sets the Phoenix Coding Academy apart is its focus on preparing students for various tech positions, ranging from software developers to IT specialists.

The school offers students a curriculum, designed by tech-savvy educators and industry experts, that integrates technology in all the traditional subject areas needed to graduate high school, and focuses on valuing student curiosity as well as critical thinking.

It also boasts an innovative learning environment that includes hands-on experience with high-tech equipment such as 3-D printers and programmable circuit boards.

The two-story school building contains 16 classrooms, including two science labs, two computer labs, and a "maker space," where students will work on projects alongside mentors and experts from the tech industry.

There's also a multipurpose room, which Beute referred to as the "hub of activity," that serves as a gym, cafeteria, and community space where the entire student body will meet twice a day. The "hub" has several flat-screen monitors that students will be encouraged to use to share projects with their peers during lunch and breaks.

Oh, and each student gets to take a laptop home.

For some, it is the first computer they'll have in their homes. Beute explained the school is giving a laptop to every student to ensure they have access to the learning materials, which will be provided online rather than via textbooks.

Thanks to partnerships with local tech companies, students will get to hear from guest speakers about the career pathways they can take. As they get older, most likely in their senior year, internships will also be available.

Beute said the goal is to give each student the skills they need to apply for entry-level jobs straight out of high school. Arizona, which is poised for continued growth in the tech industry, will likely offer plenty of job options.

Among the tech giants already operating in Arizona are Intel, GoDaddy, and General Motors. In total, there are more than 132,000 tech jobs in the state, a number that likely will continue to grow, according to the Arizona Commerce Authority.

Ian Danley, a governing board member of the Phoenix Union High School District, said he and Kent Scribner, former superintendent of the district, were part of a small group that came up with the idea for the Phoenix Coding Academy.

Danley said they held a meeting in the spring of 2014 and were on a mission to find "non-college solutions" that would allow students to get out of poverty and into middle-class jobs right after high school. With the help of Jaime Casap, chief education evangelist at Google, they concluded that the best way to do that was to open a school focused on teaching computer coding and other technology skills.

"It’s incredible," said Danley, who visited the school during the first day of classes last Monday. "It's one of the things I'm most proud of in my life."