A “First Friday” at Digital Pioneers Academy

By Sara Gopalkrishna, Policy Fellow

I had the opportunity to visit Digital Pioneers Academy (DPA) as part of First Fridays—a series of monthly learning tours that spotlight D.C. charter schools. The description “digital pioneer” aptly describes this school. The public charter middle school is the first-ever computer science focused middle school in the District. Deliberately grounded in Ward 7, Mashea Ashton, the school’s founder, and her staff are rounding the corner on the inaugural year of the school, alongside the 120 sixth-grade scholars, mostly local to the Hillcrest community, where the school resides.

With a 1-to-1 ratio of computers to students and with teachers and students using technology tools with ease, everyone in this school is a pioneer. Students at DPA have a 55-minute computer science class every day, but they use their computers all day long. This is striking when, nationally, only 31 percent of seventh and eighth graders use a computer at school every day. [1]

The school adopted the RePublic model for computer science curriculum and instruction, after researching its use in Tennessee charter schools. The approach allows teachers with strong pedagogy and the willingness to learn new content the opportunity to learn computer science material independently and step-by-step, while staying ahead of their students. The 10- and 11-year old students have used Scratch to explore game development, are currently using CodePen to script and view web pages they are developing, and will start programming with JavaScript soon.

On my visit, students were working independently to develop a web page. They were writing content, experimenting with design, and also receiving and giving productive feedback with their peers. I heard suggestions of a larger font and smaller images, as well as praise for the use of comments within the HTML.

Ashton designed DPA to serve sixth- to eighth-grade students, rather than starting with fifth-grade students (as many middle grades charter schools in the District have done). This choice is a profound one, as most traditional elementary schools serve through fifth grade and see some students leave for charter middle schools. Ashton recounts a meeting with a local DCPS elementary school about recruiting students and the principal made a simple request—that the new middle school start at sixth grade. Having made the immediate decision to oblige, Ashton describes positive and productive relationships with many elementary schools in Ward 7 that could feed into DPA.

Pairs of teachers team teach two groups of 30 students, allowing the school to build a community in which students and teachers know each other well. These pair-teaching teams identify as either Math-Science-Computer Science teachers or as ELA-Social Studies teachers. The school is designed around an extended school day (7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.), with academic support until 6 p.m. In addition to a relationship with RePublic Schools for structures and curricula around computer science, the school partners with the Flamboyan Foundation to leverage strategies to build and maintain meaningful family engagement. These efforts reflect the priorities of DPA leadership, which emphasize academic excellence and college and career readiness, but also on developing character and the expectation of life-long learning in the rapidly changing digital age.

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[1] Gallup and Google (2016), “Searching for Computer Science: Access and Barriers in U.S. K-12 Education”, https://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/searching-for-computer-science_report.pdf.

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