When Isaiah Neal walks onto the Calaveras Elementary School campus, he has his city clothes on and he crosses the parking lot like he is on a mission. Neal is a computer engineering student at San Francisco State and since January has been returning home to Hollister two days a week to teach online coding to fourth- through eighth-grade students.
Neal is a San Benito High School graduate, who, as part of an experiment, was brought in to teach computer coding at Calaveras and the Accelerated Achievement Academy (AAA). Nearly two-thirds of students at Calaveras are English language learners, while Accelerated Achievement Academy shares the campus and is for high-performing students.
The experimental, 11-week coding class is a unique opportunity. It is the result of some brainstorming between Neal and Calaveras Principal Joe Rivas. In the same timeframe, an anonymous donor came to the Community Foundation for San Benito County interested making a positive impacting at a needy local school.
Calaveras and AAA Principal Joe Rivas said, “Gary (Byrne, of the Community Foundation) came to me and said, ‘Name something you would love to do but can’t afford.’” Rivas thought immediately of putting Neal’s enthusiasm and expertise to use.
“The Community Foundation gave us seed money and we got it started. This money affected 210-215 kids and about 190 of them have computers at home. All the parents have a smart phone and can get online somehow,” Rivas said.
Calaveras, which goes from kindergarten to eighth grade, has had its challenges over the years. When principal Rivas arrived, the campus was rife with discipline problems and suspensions were skyrocketing. This year, the school has had only a few suspensions, in contrast to over 100 annually, when Rivas was hired.
On average, 61 percent of the students are English language learners. In the eighth-grade class Neal was teaching the day BenitoLink sat in; 86 percent are English learners and many are economically disadvantaged. Nancy Woods, the group’s full-time teacher, said, “It takes double effort because they’re still learning English.”
Woods said that her students were soon aware of the income potential of this new skill. “It's something that people in the work world know how to do. They are aware that people have jobs in this,” she said.
According to Department of Education statistics, only 12 percent of the students in eighth grade at Calaveras are meeting or exceeding math standards and just 27 percent in English standards.
Neal said, “They have some language problems because at home they are all talking differently." He has not found it to be a major problem, however. "What I do is put together a table of kids and they all help each other,” he said.
Despite many academic setbacks, the students’ performance with coding made Principal Rivas excited. “They are locking in and they are totally into this,” he said.
According to Rivas and teachers at the school, eighth-graders responded well to a young instructor like Neal and said they appreciate having a male teacher. When he started, Neal wasn’t so sure how the students would react to him. “My first thought was that they were going to be bored. But what happened was they wanted me to stay longer and come more often,” he said.
In a short time, Neal was telling stories about his students' progress. “Abraham didn’t want to do coding. He didn’t care. Then one day he asked me how to make something in code and after that, something clicked. He was just on fire all the time. That’s what I love," said Neal.
Eighth-grader Abraham said, “When I barely started I didn't know what to do but when he came every week, it got better. He teaches everything in a good way, so I understand it.”
Another one of Neal's students, Anayeli, said, “He’s teaching us stuff we don’t know how to do. One time, on accident, I had a page that was turquoise and white and it just disappeared but he helped me with it.” Anayeli started again, rebuilding the whole page from scratch.
Raul, also in the eighth-grade class said, “When I was a baby, Spanish was my only language.” He explained that he has a computer at home that he shares with his sister. “You can make your own web page and background! I like to remember all the codes and stuff,“ he said.
Neal said he was amazed to watch students zip ahead of his lessons and start creating on their own. He said he had a fourth-grade student who was ahead of her class and “gave him gifts” like a picture or something extra, using methods they hadn’t even learned yet.
Neal was contracted to give this special course with the Calaveras teachers remaining in the classroom. Eighth-grade teacher Woods was able to observe student progress and said, "They have this expression on their faces like, ‘I did it!’ When they understand that they really do get it, they can take pride in it.” Woods said the students are aware they are learning a skill that can help support them someday. In fact, Woods felt her students; attitude about learning in general had improved. With Neal’s coding lessons, students have gone through a transformation. “They are more interested in all their subjects,” Woods said.
Rivas admitted that as a parent, he has concerns about technology’s affect on human interaction and that time with technology needs to be managed. “This is a new generation of literacy. Ninety percent of us are carrying these things around (smart phones and iPads). It’s not just a tool,” Rivas said. Still, he has seen the benefits. “It opens their world to how their electronic devices work and how the internet is navigated. It shows them a behind the scenes look at how a hyperlink works. In a sense, they are learning another language, the language of the 21st Century,” Rivas said.
Coming from another perspective, Neal, a millennial, said, “One of the things I like is that it's a machine. It doesn’t matter about race or sexuality. It doesn’t care. As cold as a machine is, it’s always fair.” The main difficulty I faced was that they don't all have computers at home, so they aren't as familiar with how to use a keyboard.”
For Neal, it’s ironic that the computer industry is centered only a few miles away from these students and there hasn’t been this connection until now. “I mean, it’s crazy. We are 60 miles from the starting place of electronics," he said.
Rivas hopes that through private funding, the program can continue and expand next year, "o that students can continue developing their skills and take it to the next level of moving from a personal page about themselves to creating a website regarding a project," he said.
As what Rivas called "this amazing endeavor” wraps-up, Neal reflected on the progress made. “What I’m giving them is a marketable skill, which is web building but even more, it’s getting them interested in coding in general. It’s an exciting event when they learn something new and can do it on their own.” he said.
For a college student like Neal, the chance to come home to San Benito County and make a difference has been gratifying. Neal said, “The feeling of happiness is unimaginable when I see a student who was struggling to understand how to even use a computer and then they exceed every expectation that I set for him or her.”
For Rivas and Neal, the next dream is for this unique opportunity sparked by one visionary donor to receive broader support so young teachers like Neal can impact more classes and other schools throughout the county.