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Coding for kids, by (older) kids

How an Arlington High School student launched a program to teach coding to children who have a hard time accessing it.

On a snowy Saturday morning in early February, a group of kids clad in bright jackets and pom-pom hats piles into the classrooms at Brookview House in Dorchester, ready to learn computer science with the help of 17-year-old Robbie Khazan and the Kiddo Byte team.

Inside the classrooms, brainstorming begins. A group of girls shouts out ideas for games they can create on Scratch, an introductory programming language for kids. Two volunteer instructors stand at the board, ready to record the various game designs that pop up.

The girls pick a theme: a choose-your-own adventure game that revolves around a puppy who must save treats from a bad guy. From there they pick out their own canine characters: There’s a husky named Emily, a golden retriever named Max.

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Down the hall, the boys are just as enthusiastic about creating their own game. They float the idea of a Winter Olympics theme, but ultimately decide on recreating a popular app they already play, called Geometry Dash.

All the while Kiddo Byte founder Khazan is ducking between classrooms, helping teach the eager students who range in age from 8 to 13. The Arlington High School senior has harbored a love for coding from an early age, and began his nonprofit, offering free computer science courses for kids, in the fall of 2020 after seeing the enthusiasm of his younger sister and her friends as he taught them how to code.

Khazan soon expanded Kiddo Byte’s services to the children who need it most: those who don’t have access to coding classes. With demand for tech workers growing (employment of computer scientists is expected to grow 22 percent from 2020 to 2030), children with computer science skills under their belt have more opportunities for future high-paying jobs and scholarships. But, today, only 5 percent of tech employees in Massachusetts are Black and 7 percent Latino, according to the Mass Technology Leadership Council.

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A 2018 study by Massachusetts’ state department of education found stark disparities in access to coding classes that affected mostly low-income students, students of color, and female students. Urban high schools were half as likely to offer computer science lessons compared with their suburban counterparts, and where coding classes were available, white and male students were more likely to enroll than other demographics.

And while Massachusetts K-12 schools have expanded access to computer science programs in recent years, coding classes aren’t required by the state, and private computer science lessons can cost hundreds of dollars.

Nelson Perdomo, 12, checked out a computer game on his smartphone at Kiddo Byte.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

“I wanted to make the biggest impact I could with Kiddo Byte, as an opportunity to do something more meaningful than just teaching programming to kids who could pay for it,” said Khazan.

After e-mailing several transitional housing shelters, Khazan found a match in Brookview House, a nonprofit that serves women and children experiencing homelessness. Brookview already offers youth programming, including a Girls Who Code class that Kiddo Byte recently took over, and was looking for someone to lead a boys computer science program. Kiddo Byte now offers two-hour classes twice a month at Brookview.

“The kids love working with Robbie,” said Brookview president and CEO Deborah Hughes. “I think what’s most impressive to our youth is that he is a youth as well, who’s teaching this class and making it fun. That’s what we always try to do with everything that we present to the kids: make it interesting, make it an adventure, and Robbie does that.”

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Even though it’s run by teenagers, Kiddo Byte has some serious supporters. Last year, it won grants from the Akamai Foundation and Whole Foods, and current partners include MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory as well as the university’s Office of Government and Community Relations. Khazan formed the MIT connection the same way he partnered with Brookview — by e-mail, in the spring of 2021.

When Lincoln Lab heard who Kiddo Byte serviced, it agreed to provide monetary support. Last June, the lab helped Kiddo Byte donate nine Chromebooks to Brookview kids, which Khazan said was “incredible.”

“One of our students didn’t put it down, and they’d joke about it for months that he brought it to the beach with him,” he added.

Lincoln Lab employees have since joined Kiddo Byte classes as instructors, giving the kids access to wisdom of professional programmers.

“Kiddo Byte was targeting those groups of students who are low-income minority students, students underrepresented in the STEM field, and that is part of our mission as well,” said Chiamaka Agbasi-Porter, the K-12 STEM outreach manager at Lincoln Lab.

Still, most volunteers at Kiddo Byte are high school students, 39 in all, who teach classes, work on marketing and fund-raising, and onboard new volunteers.

“It’s really cool to work with these kids, especially because coding is such an empowering skill to have,” said Shea O’Day, a Kiddo Byte volunteer. “At first coding is super intimidating, but then slowly kids start to engage more and enjoy it. And this is on a Saturday morning when they don’t have to be here, yet they still come back.”

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Khazan says Kiddo Byte’s classes stand out because they’re small, personalized, and focused on forming genuine connections.

“We’re able to help them even if they’re not going to become a computer scientist later on by giving them access to a tool to express their creativity, and something tangible to point to and say, ‘I made that’ ” said Khazan. “I think every single kid, no matter where they’re from, that’s going to affect their life trajectory because it gives them something to create and be proud of.”

Khazan and Kiddo Byte seem to be succeeding in this mission. While the rest of the Brookview students break for lunch, 12-year-old Nelson hangs back. He wants to finish building his game with Khazan, and hops up onto a chair to share his ideas on the whiteboard.


Annie Probert can be reached at annie.probert@globe.com.