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The Great Divide

Why is Massachusetts’ tech sector so lacking in diversity? Take a look inside AP computer science classes

Nevaeh Calliste, a sophomore at Boston's O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, is one of a relatively few Black female students taking the at-home version of the Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles exam this month.
Nevaeh Calliste, a sophomore at Boston's O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, is one of a relatively few Black female students taking the at-home version of the Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles exam this month.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff


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Julia Preszler contributed material to this report.

Nevaeh Calliste knows that she is a trailblazer. The sophomore at Boston’s O’Bryant School of Mathematics is one of a relatively few Black female students — anywhere — taking the at-home version of the Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles exam this month. She gravitated to the subject as a standout in a freshman-year computing class.

“Even though there were some women in the class, there were no Black women,” said Calliste. “I felt like my presence was a message that when we’re given the opportunity, we can code just as well as anyone in the class — probably better.” For the AP exam, Calliste is developing her own app: a Spongebob-themed version of the arcade video game “Crossy Road.” (The at-home version of the Computer Science Principles exam, unlike most other quarantine-era APs being taken last week and this, asks students to complete two projects independently over multiple days.)

Calliste is all-too-rare in a city where Black and Latino students’ access to advanced computer science offerings is limited: More than three-quarters of those students who took AP computer science exams in 2018-19 came from one of the city’s three highly selective exam schools, a Globe analysis of state data found.

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That school year, only one Boston public high school offered both AP computer science courses, Computer Science A and Principles. That school was Boston Latin: the public high school with the highest percentage of white students. (Boston school officials say that two additional high schools began offering both classes this school year, after the state’s last official tally.)

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In Massachusetts and across the country, demand from students for advanced computer science offerings has exploded, making AP Computer Science Principles the nation’s second-fastest-growing AP class. Enrollment nationwide increased by 33 percent from 2018 to 2019 alone.

Yet parts of Massachusetts, and Boston especially, have lagged in meeting that demand. That’s to the detriment of not only the scores of students who aspire to computer science-related careers but the state’s economy overall: Nearly a quarter of jobs in the state require computer science skills, according to the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

“We have certainly not been as competitive in addressing this issue, especially when you consider how much of the Massachusetts economy is based and grounded in IT and computer technology,” said Edward Lambert, executive director of the alliance. “We have a national and international reputation in these fields and yet our own K-12 system still has large and surprising gaps. It’s a particular shortcoming.”

Of the approximately 330 public high schools in Massachusetts that offer AP classes, two-thirds of them included an AP computer science course last school year, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. But in Boston, only 30 percent of such schools did, leaving many of the city’s public high schools with no AP computer science offerings. By contrast, in 2018, 61 percent of Boston high schools with APs included English Language and Composition, and 57 percent offered AP Calculus.

“A lot of schools that are full of minorities don’t get the message of, ‘Okay, I could do coding,’ ” Calliste said.

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AP courses, which prep students on college-level material, have long struggled with diversity and equity issues. And the College Board’s April decision to have students take shortened versions of the exams online — usually from home, regardless of the quality of the Internet access — has only fueled concerns.

“I think this is going to benefit students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Mark Sklarow, the CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, which represents private college admissions coaches.

Wealthier students are more likely to have reliable broadband Internet access, quiet spaces at home to take the exams, and schools that have continued to prep them aggressively over the last two months. This “will really benefit private school students who might have had a better continuation of their school year,” he said, adding that an untold number of students will probably skip the online exam altogether.

Computer science might see some of the smallest drop-off in participation because the already rarefied group of students who take the courses are so tech-savvy and assured. “We’re always on computers,” Calliste said. She works on developing her app in her bedroom at home using a setup with two laptops and a desktop. Calliste uses one laptop to test the game, a second for coding, and the desktop for anything miscellaneous that arises.

Her teacher, Jose Borges, says he expects nearly all of his students to complete the exam online.

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The stakes for individual students can be high. Without access to advanced coursework, students hoping to pursue computer science as a major or specialty in college arrive grossly underprepared and flounder, said Marie desJardins, dean of the College of Organizational, Computational, and Information Sciences at Simmons University.

“If you don’t have any exposure to computer programming in high school, by the time you get to college you’re already behind the curve,” desJardins said. Too often, she says, it’s young women and students of color who miss out. “The white, male, and more affluent students have likely already been programming for years.”

Partly as a result of the state’s shortcomings in expanding access to high school computer science, “the pipeline for talent (into tech) is becoming increasingly constricted and even less diverse,” said Lambert. Only 3 percent of Massachusetts workers in computer and mathematical occupations are Black, and only 5 percent are Hispanic, according to a report by the Mass Technology Leadership Council.

In January of 2018, Massachusetts’ state department of education formed a working group to try to expand computer science education in public schools. The group found large swaths of the student population had limited access to computer science courses, and those that elected to take the classes were largely white and male.

As a result, the department said that it would allow students to substitute a math or science requirement from the MassCore, the state college-preparation curriculum, for one of three computer science courses approved by the state. The group also recommended that the department work to increase the number of teachers licensed to teach the subject.

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But Massachusetts has stopped short of mandating that districts offer computer science, said Tricia Lederer, director of communications for the business alliance. As of 2018, only 15 states, including New Hampshire, Florida, New Jersey, and Maryland, required all high schools to offer computer science.

“The decisions about how, when, and how much to offer are left up to the districts,” Lederer said.

In Boston, district officials stressed that 70 schools of all levels offer classes focused on the basic elements of coding, and skills like robotics. The district is in the process of developing a digital literacy and computer science plan with a team of administrators and teachers. “We are committed to offering computer science throughout the district,” said Xavier Andrews, the deputy press secretary.

He said both English High School and Lyon High School added Computer Science A to their syllabi this school year because educators wanted to bring the subject to their schools. “We look forward to seeing this upward trend continue,” he wrote.

But with access to advanced courses in the subject limited, several organizations have been working to fill the gap.

The group Mass Insight Education & Research partners with schools across the state to improve the quality of AP education. In Boston, the nonprofit works at East Boston, Excel, O’Bryant, TechBoston, Madison Park, and the Community Academy of Science and Health, offering professional development to teachers and exam preparation for students through Saturday study sessions.

Across the six schools, participation in AP computer science has risen from two students to 82 over the last dozen years. Its work is one of the main reasons several of the city’s non-exam high schools offer AP computer science.

“Technology just grows faster and faster, but there has been a real disparity in how many students are studying it,” said Carla Comeau, the STEM curriculum coordinator for the group.

At other schools, staff members have taken it upon themselves to develop alternatives to AP. In the last year, for instance, Brighton High School’s technology coordinator, Timothy Harrison, has started teaching an introductory-level computing course. More than 20 juniors take the class. “What they have shown us is that when it’s available to them, they’re more than eager to take advantage,” Harrison said.

He has also spent a lot of time teaching himself to code, all out of desire to better meet the needs of students who are hungry for computer science classes the school isn’t offering.

They “find out I work with computers and they want me to teach them as much as I can,” Harrison said. He’s in the process of getting certified to teach AP Computer Science Principles. But for the time being, “I’m limited in my ability to give them the coding knowledge they need.”

Brenno Goncalves, a junior at Brighton in Harrison’s class, dreams of majoring in computer science in college and becoming a programmer. And he knows that to do that, he really should learn coding and programming in high school.

Goncalves greatly appreciates Harrison’s class, which teaches students how to build computer applications using drag-and-drop tools. Yet when it comes to the all-important realms of coding, Web design, or encryption, “I just have to wait,” Goncalves said, “because there isn’t anything else I can take.”