DC's Newest Charter Promises 'Computer Science for All'

Mashea Ashton

Mashea Ashton, founder and CEO of Digital Pioneers Academy, will open her computer science-focused middle school this fall in Washington, D.C. Source: Digital Pioneers Academy

The first computer-science-focused middle school will be opening shortly in Washington, D.C. Digital Pioneers Academy is a tuition-free, open-enrollment public charter school that will kick off with an expected 120 students in a sixth-grade cohort. School officials said DPA would continue adding new sixth-graders over the next three years until a total of 360 students is reached. Ultimately, the school also plans to grow into a high school by 2021.

Besides the standard English, math, social studies, science and physical education courses, DPA will also include computer science and robotics as core classes. The school will be 1-to-1, with the expectation that the devices will stay on campus. The program will also integrate "expeditions," real-world projects, short internships or, for those students who need it, remediation attention.

The mission of DPA, laid out in its charter application filed in 2017, is to "develop the next generation of innovators. We prepare students to meet or exceed the highest academic standards, while cultivating the strength of character necessary to both graduate from four-year colleges and persist in 21st century careers."

But a more concrete goal is this one: every student will pass an AP computer science test by the time he or she reaches the 12th grade.  To put that in perspective, the school expects to reflect the demographics of the neighborhoods from which it's drawing its student base; according to Census numbers, Ward 7 is 93 percent Black and Ward 8 is 90 percent Black. (The remaining population is White and Hispanic.) During the 2017 testing cycle for that exam, the District of Columbia Public School System had a total of nine Black students who passed the Computer Science A AP test with a score of three or higher, generally considered a passing score; 13 Black students passed the CS Principles AP exam with a score of three or higher. So if the current schools participating in those exams maintained their same level of achievement, the new school could single-handedly increase the number of African-American students in the district with passing scores by 944 percent for CS A and by 460 percent for CS Principles.

DPA will operate classes from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a requirement that students participate in at least one sport or club during that last hour of the day. In addition, the school will provide a study hall until 6 p.m.

Founder Mashea Ashton began her career as a teacher in Ward 7 and has family in the area that goes back six generations. She cut her teeth on charter school management in the City of Newark, NJ, and at the KIPP Public Charter Schools network. Among the recruiting efforts planned for the new school (outlined in the charter application) was an emphasis on personalized learning, helping students prepare for the "highest-wage, highest-demand jobs in the D.C. region," and a promise of "computer science for all."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.