Connecting young minds through code
When Sylvester Mobley returned from Iraq he wanted to find a way to make a community impact in his city. He really didn’t know what that would be, but when he began to really look at the issues of diversity in technology, something became apparent.
Most of the tech industry did not look like him or come from the same upbringing as he did.
“When I was really looking into why it there was such a lack of diversity in the tech industry, one of the things I kept landing on was education,” Mobley said.
Before joining the Army National Guard in 2006, Mobley was in the Air Force Reserves where he became a computer, network, cryptographic switching systems specialist. In this field of work some of Mobley’s responsibilities included setting up, troubleshooting and fixing computer systems. He also setup networks, servers and software among other things.
Mobley had the technical training and experience, but he was also college educated. He attended Temple University where he received a degree in finance.
With the skills he gained in the Air Force and the additional knowledge he received from his education at Temple, Mobley was able to return to Philadelphia with an idea in mind.
In order for Philadelphia’s inner-city youth to learn the valuable technical skills that would allow them to gain more opportunities in today’s advanced digital age, he would develop a program for those students himself.
“When I came home from Iraq and I started Coded by Kids, it was me in [the Marian Anderson Recreation Center] with one kid coming in on Saturday and teaching web development to this one kid,” Mobley said. “It was honestly like that for a while until we started to bring in more kids and as more kids came it started to get to a point where I couldn’t teach all of them.”
Mobley put a call out to Philadelphia’s tech community asking for people who would be interested in assisting him with his new project. The call was well-received and those who had seemed interested began reaching out.
As time went on, Coded by Kids started to grow and Mobley found himself working with more than one student at a time. During the last school year, he found himself teaching 90 students a week.
“If you think about the education that the average kid is getting for computer science in schools right now, it's not adequate enough to prepare them to go into the tech industry,” Mobley said. “Whether it’s due to budget cutbacks, a lack of experience for teachers or a host of things like that. The average computer science class in a school has kids learning to type or opening and saving a document, so they’re not really learning anything substantial even in schools where they try to push beyond some of those basics.”
In Mobley’s view, most of the teachers who are tasked with teaching and developing lessons on computer literacy in Philadelphia schools are not from the tech community themselves. This forces instructors who are not educated in the material to creating lesson plans by guessing at what is important and what is not when teaching students.
“They are not able to appropriately prepare the kids,” Mobley said. “I saw that this was one of the biggest issues facing the industry, as far as trying to become more diverse. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how many diversity initiatives that you enact or how much you want the tech industry to be more diverse. If people who are coming into the tech industry are not prepared and they don’t have the skills then you still can’t hire them regardless of how much you want change to happen.”
If Coded by Kids could concentrate its focus, Mobley said, it would strive towards making sure that kids who are graduating from inner-city schools, are at the very least receiving a technological education that they deserve.
This way they would never be told that they cannot be hired because they don’t have the required skills needed.
Coded by Kids holds classes on Thursdays and Saturdays. At the Thursday sessions, the class size varies, but that doesn’t stop Mobley and his small team of volunteers from going on with the day’s plans.
It’s definitely a sight to behold, watching children from different backgrounds and area schools working on web-based projects and learning about coding. Mobley, even though each child at times wants his attention, makes sure that each one is on task while also having fun in the process.
There are some students who are only 6 years old working on projects that include HTML and CSS coding. There are others, slightly older, moving at a faster pace and moving from one project to the next.
“I don’t by any means think that every child should be a programmer,” Mobley said. “I think it's unrealistic to say that every child needs to be a programmer. But by giving every kid access to programs like this, now every kid who wants to be a programmer now has access to it and now has the ability to take advantage of it.”
Suddenly, Cassandra Ramirez King (the kids call her “Ms. Cassie”) enters the room and the students excitedly greet her. Some give her quick hugs, some lasting slightly longer while the other kids smile brightly at her from their computers.
As King greets each child, she reaches into a bag and begins distributing small bags of candy to everyone. The kids happily open their bags, eating the candy and returning to work.
“I got involved at the beginning. I had seen a sort of lonely tweet from Coded by Kids and it said that they were looking for volunteers,” King said. “I messaged the account and got a reply from Sylvester and he explained what he was doing. I basically just met him at the center and started the first day, met with the kids and started teaching.”
With a cash-strapped school district, the chances of students like the ones Mobley teaches receiving any type of computer education that goes beyond the basics is slim.
For years now, schools have had to make the often unpopular decision of reducing costs by extra-curricular programs, counselors, nurses and other resources outside basic education.
According to Philly.com, just last week the Philadelphia School District told City Council members that they wanted to begin talks with city and state officials about how to address a “funding crunch that is expected in 2019.” The district proposed their budget for the next school year last week.
“More importantly these are children who are being left behind by society,” said King. “There’s little to no funding being given to public schools to get kids involved in technology early on and it's not fair.”
Later on in the months that followed, as Coded by Kids focused on gathering more volunteers, King became the organization’s volunteer coordinator.
Volunteers need to have a specific set of skills, King said. They not only have to find people who enjoy being around children, but who know that some kids come from tough backgrounds.
“In addition to that, you have to know how to code and it’s a really small pool of people,” King said. “To find even minority representation within that field is even harder, so that was the effort and at the time Sylvester was just starting to reach out to a lot of the organizations, government and all that. He’s come a long way but that was sort of our beginnings.”
Originally from Puerto Rico, King pointed out how she did not have much exposure to technology until she arrived in the U.S. She’s a self-taught developer, learning after the fact, but sees a lack of education for Latinos, Latinas and others in terms of not knowing what is out there.
“It’s critical, it’s really critical to the future of this city, to the future of our educational system,” King said.
Mobley said finding a home from the program was easier than he expected. He said he is thankful to the center’s recreation leader who believed in him and the mission that he wanted to convey.
Though he added how hard it was to find other centers where the leaders were as receptive, a big part of what Mobley wants to do now is to expand Coded by Kids throughout Philadelphia.
King hopes that once all of the pieces are in place, Coded by Kids will be able to touch the Philadelphia Latino community, in particular young Latinas, a cause that is important to her. Ashezi Ekpaji, whose 6-year-old son attends the Saturday morning classes, learned about Mobley and Coded by Kids through her mother who recommended the program to her. Her nephew is also in the program. Overall, Ekpaji sees that the program is benefiting her son’s creativity and problem solving.
“They’re able to create something that they make up and it is original,” said Ekpaji. “And they start from scratch. It also helps him with focusing.”
Even though attention spans are all over the place, at a young age, the students are learning concepts that are way beyond basic computer skills, Mobley said.
“Even if these kids decide that they never want to be a programmer, they’ll still be going into the world with really solid advanced computer skills,” Mobley said. “One of the biggest problems with the digital divide is that people just don’t have the skills to utilize a computer or the Internet. These kids now have the skills to use these computers and they can leverage these skills to have a positive impact on their lives.”