Murphy’s ‘Computer Science for All’ Initiative Off to Modest Start

John Mooney | January 31, 2019 | Education
Governor announces first $2 million in grants for high-tech program will be divvied up among 29 school districts

Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy announces “Computer Science for All” grants at Belleville High School.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s “Computer Science for All” initiative will be starting out as computer science for some.

Murphy yesterday traveled to Belleville High School to announce that the first $2 million in grants would be used to help launch or enhance computer science programs in 29 school districts and charter schools. He said it would open up 900 more classroom seats in those schools.

Still, there is a great deal to do to meet the promise of computer science for all, or even most. A new law signed last winter requires at least one computer science class in every New Jersey high school. Murphy conceded that his announcement is just the beginning of the push to serve all the state’s high schools, not to mention lower grades.

According to the law, the deadline for the computer science expansion is this school year. It also calls on the State Board of Education to consider new graduation requirements by the 2022-2023 school year.

“It’s a significant amount of money, but it is not going to fulfill all we want to get to,” Murphy said. “We had 44 districts apply for these funds, and I’d like it to be 444.”

The computer science agenda

The focus on enhanced computer science programs in the schools is hardly new to this governor, or even the Garden State. New York City launched a computer science for all initiative in 2015, and a national initiative is underway as well. Here in New Jersey, scores of schools provide such programs, especially in affluent communities.

But it is hardly commonplace for every district, and it has become an even more acute need as the workplace becomes more and more digital.

Murphy spoke about the state’s deep shortage of computer science skills, citing a 2015 report by Code.org that found 23,000 open positions in computer science jobs yet just 1,100 new graduates in the field. Other gaps in the high schools are equally stark, with girls making up just a quarter of AP computer science students and minority students just a seventh.

The governor and others said this first investment was a start, a way to bolster fledgling programs, whether they’re robotics classes or coding clubs. Included in winning districts’ plans are enhanced AP programs, summer classes, and programs to help students earn job credentials. The initial grants give preference to lower-income districts, the governor said.

A chance to make a mark

“It’s about giving the young people of Belleville and 28 other schools the chance to make their mark in innovation and technology,” he said.

In Belleville, the grant will amount to about $80,000, enough to purchase new hardware and software and provide additional training for staff. But Superintendent Richard Tomko said the grant is more than about covering direct costs.

“It will allow us to expand the programs and the class sizes,” said Tomko. “And what happened today is it will give something to advertise for the kids. The whole idea is not to lose the 8th graders to (outside) academies or private schools and to show them that Belleville can do this.”

The largest grant will go to Newark for $100,000; the smallest, $20,000, to Manasquan. Each of the grants will add a minimum of 20 more students to current programs.

Reaching the youngest minds

Murphy also announced a privately funded fellowship program for elementary school teachers to learn ways to better teach the youngest students the kinds of problem-solving skills associated with computer science and STEM.

The program will be led by Math for America, a nonprofit group pushing for better math instruction and running a fellowship in New York City. The one-year fellowships — complete with $5,000 stipends — will begin next year and will be hosted by Montclair State University, Princeton University, and Rowan University.

Finally, the administration yesterday announced it would reallocate at least some of a pool of $13 million in federal Title I funds to low-income schools to build their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs, along with social and emotional health supports and arts programs.