Palo Alto school district, Palantir partner to teach coding

Tech company launches after-school program to guide low-income students into tech world

A rainy evening during finals week, after school got out for the day, eight Palo Alto high school students sat enraptured in a downtown office building, listening to software engineer Brandon Burr of Palantir talk about using his company's software as a means to combat homelessness.

The mini high-tech lecture ended, and the room fell silent as the students bent over laptops sitting on desks in front of them, returning to websites they've been building for several weeks with the guidance of Palantir employees.

These after-school classes, the result of a new partnership between the Palo Alto school district, Palantir and the City of Palo Alto, aim to teach a select group of low-income high school students how to code and about potential career paths in technology.

Three Palantir employees who were once teaching assistants (TAs) at Stanford University lead the 10-week computer-science class, which started this fall and will continue in the spring. The employees begin each two-hour class with a 20-minute talk that broadens the context of code, from what the Internet is and how it works to examples of work Palantir does in the outside world (two recent topics were the survey and management tool geared at ending homelessness and software used to prevent bank fraud).

These talks are about communicating to the students: "'You're here today, but this is how far it can go,'" Ari Gesher, a Palantir software engineer, said.

Fourteen Gunn and Palo Alto High School students were selected for the class after applying. Almost all are low-income and in the school district's Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP), which allows students who live in the Ravenswood City School District to attend Palo Alto schools. There's only one girl, but Palantir and the school district hope to attract more next semester by sending female engineers to talk to Paly and Gunn students about the class.

The structure of the class is also more forward-looking. They're taught using Code Academy, which offers free online coding curriculum that can be accessed anywhere, at any time -- meaning the students can log in and learn outside of the class. It's also self-guided, so students can move at their own pace. The Palantir instructors are there to support and answer questions rather than lecture from a podium.

Palo Alto High School senior Chris Garcia said he'd always been interested in coding but didn't feel like he had the background experience necessary to take a Paly computer-science course. The second he got a letter in the mail advertising the Palantir class, he knew it was an "opportunity he wanted to seize," he said.

Garcia quickly became one of the class's all-stars. In the midst of finals and college applications during late December, he's been engrossed in learning JavaScript, the programming language of the Web, both inside and outside the Wednesday evening class. Gesher and the other instructor that day, Brandon Burr, excitedly told the students that engineers used JavaScript to create the front end of their homelessness tool.

"It's really great to be able to give back and instill some passion in these kids for what's going to make sense for them in terms of building a career," Gesher said. "What are the jobs of the future?"

In Palo Alto, this rings especially true under the new leadership of Superintendent Max McGee, who is very often heard saying that part and parcel the district's mission must be to prepare today's students for the jobs of the future -- jobs that don't exist.

"This partnership is an exemplary model and one that will help us address the opportunity and access gap that has existed in our district for too long," McGee wrote in an email. "I hope that other companies follow Palantir's lead or think of additional innovative ideas to serve our students who are so hungry to learn."

Related content:

Harnessing the power of coding: Low-income young adults hitch a ride on the tech revolution

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7 people like this
Posted by PAMom
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 2, 2015 at 3:47 pm

Why not to give access to all other PA students to this wonderful opportunity?

5 people like this
Posted by Lidia
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 5, 2015 at 9:23 am

What about giving ALL kids this opportunity? All kids in the school district should have equal opportunity. I thought that was the message the district was trying to send.

1 person likes this
Posted by 37 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 5, 2015 at 11:02 am

"Opportunity and access gap?" So now there will be an opportunity and access gap for the rest of the students who might be interested in learning to code. Or does the school district and Palantir only want to help a select low-income group? Sounds discriminatory to me.

21 people like this
Posted by EPAMom
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 5, 2015 at 11:08 am

There are already many coding classes and opportunities for children whose parents can pay tuition. There are free workshops also for those who have computers and can be driven around. This small program is an attempt to provide access for the kids who don't have these advantages. Don't worry, entitled and privileged residents of Palo Alto, one of the richest places on Earth. These kids won't catch up to yours, even with this effort.

4 people like this
Posted by taxpayer
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 5, 2015 at 11:20 am

This is outrageous. The average Gunn student is pushed out of learning coding by unreasonably high standards leading up to the AP class. Then he/she is cut out of an appropriate level class because their parents make too much money. And we thought the new superintendent was here to serve the whole district.

Like this comment
Posted by About Palantir
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 5, 2015 at 11:31 am

Palantir has been making lots of moves to influence Palo Alto governance. Their workers have advocated for more housing downtown.
They even hired a sitting Planning Commissioner.
We should be aware of what is hidden as well as what is visible.

4 people like this
Posted by taxpayer
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 5, 2015 at 11:36 am

Who are they and what is their agenda?

And why is our new superintendent so naive as to make this class discriminatory?

13 people like this
Posted by gift horse
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 5, 2015 at 1:07 pm

It used to be that local businesses sponsored youth baseball, or a local bowling league (and got their logo on the t-shirts of participants). In this day and age, it is far more valuable that Palantir is investing real resources in teaching coding skills to local kids. The salaries that they must pay engineers is substantial: this represents a real investment.

Hopefully, these kids are inspired to continue to learn coding later in life. It would be great if all kids in PA had this opportunity, but I agree with EPAmom: start with the kids who don't have other opportunities like this. Palantir can clearly not offer instruction to every student in Palo Alto. Their engineers have day jobs to do, in addition to DONATING their time to the schools.

9 people like this
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 5, 2015 at 1:31 pm

You said it, EPA Mom. Good on Palantir for providing these opportunities for kids who don't come from privileged backgrounds where many, many students in Palo Alto spend their free time in SAT prep courses. I can't believe anyone would find fault with this [portion removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Patsy Mink
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 5, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Only one girl? Are you kidding?

How can you even have a program like this with one girl. [Portion removed.] How does this make sense to you? Your program is a failure if this is your rate of gender integration. If you didn't get sufficient applications from girls then GO BACK AND TRY HARDER TO RECRUIT APPLICANTS.

[Portion removed.]

And frankly, McGee, you should know better since you had this same issue at IMSA and had to deal with it previously. DOn't send out press releases about the great success of a class that is 93% male. That is not a success it's a failure and it is probably discrimination.

Reporter, how about not just reprinting the Tabitha press-release about how they will work harder next time. They should have worked harder this time.

What century is this?

[Portion removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 5, 2015 at 3:37 pm

There are plenty of students who LIVE in Palo Alto that can't afford tutors to teach them to code, prepare for SATs or aid them when they are struggling with a class (more than those who CAN afford it I assure you!). Many families live here and barely scrape by just so they can give their kids the advantage of Palo Alto schools. Don't assume just because you have a Palo Alto address that you are swimming in money. If you do, you clearly don't have kids in school now. Everyone should have access to these types of programs. I applaud Palantir for offering such a great opportunity for ANY kids though.

1 person likes this
Posted by About Palantir
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 5, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Before we get all teary eyed at Palantir's Public Relatios generosity you need to know that it is a 9 billion dollar company. That's billion.
Web Link
"So far, Palantir has been very focused on government and financial clients, such as the FBI, the CIA, and many Wall Street firms"

So helping a *tiny* number of students with an online course is less than peanuts. The payback in free public relations is huge.
Best wishes to the students but as a donation by a mega-mega corporation it is pitiful.
And yes, they did hire one of our current Planning Commissioners. He should resign from the Commission though that would lower his value to them. But it would show a little integrity.
Looking a gift horse in the mouth is necessary if you care to know what is really going on and dont want to get screwed later.

Like this comment
Posted by taxpayer
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 5, 2015 at 3:39 pm

Why the insults when all we are asking for is fair and equal treatment? How can you assume that all kids who live in Palo Alto are rich or spending all of their time prepping for SAT? I'd say the prejudice is on EPA mom and Sylvia. Why shouldn't the district serve the non-AP average kid? You sound pretty defensive and selfish on this thread.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 5, 2015 at 5:09 pm

I have no objection to Palantir or any other company benevolently deciding to help EPA or low income students to code.

I do object to PAUSD singling out students to give them an opportunity that other PAUSD students don't get.

Many PAUSD families struggle to live in Palo Alto and have no money for tutors or extra classes. They may not be low income, but they are as deserving as anybody else to learn something that will help them get high tech jobs in the future.

PAUSD should not be making judgment calls on who are worthy of getting these free classes. Presumably, and I may be wrong, the only way of knowing who would benefit is from their addresses or whether they get free lunches. Using this information to discern who should get free anything sounds extremely discriminatory to me.

8 people like this
Posted by embarrassed Thank You
a resident of Addison School
on Jan 5, 2015 at 8:03 pm

This is an embarrassing display. These employees are donating their time to teach kids coding, and 90% of the comments are telling them that they are doing something nefarious. These are engineers, and I'm sure that they're not let off the hook by their company to continue to push code. I'm an engineer, and I can tell you: we're not paid by the hour. Whatever we're doing on the side comes out of our free time.

To Mssrs Gesher and Burr (and whoever else is donating their time to our kids): THANK YOU! Your time makes a difference in our community.

1 person likes this
Posted by Phil
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 5, 2015 at 9:32 pm

Just so you know,

"the NSA, the FBI and the CIA–an early investor through its In-Q-Tel venture fund–along with an alphabet soup of other U.S. counterterrorism and military agencies. In the last five years Palantir has become the go-to company for mining massive data sets for intelligence and law enforcement applications, with a slick software interface and coders who parachute into clients’ headquarters to customize its programs."

"The biggest problem for Palantir’s business may be just how well its software works: It helps its customers see too much. In the wake of NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations of the agency’s mass surveillance, Palantir’s tools have come to represent privacy advocates’ greatest fears of data-mining technology — Google-level engineering applied directly to government spying. That combination of Big Brother and Big Data has come into focus just as Palantir is emerging as one of the fastest-growing startups in the Valley, threatening to contaminate its first public impressions and render the firm toxic in the eyes of customers and investors just when it needs them most.

“They’re in a scary business,” says Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien. ACLU analyst Jay Stanley has written that Palantir’s software could enable a “true totalitarian nightmare, monitoring the activities of innocent Americans on a mass scale.”

"Katz-Lacabe, a gray-bearded and shaggy-haired member of the local school board, community activist and blogger, saw the photo only a year later: In 2010 he learned about the San Leandro Police Department’s automatic license plate readers, designed to constantly photograph and track the movements of every car in the city. He filed a public records request for any images that included either of his two cars. The police sent back 112 photos. He found the one of his children most disturbing.

“Who knows how many other people’s kids are captured in these images?” he asks. His concerns go beyond a mere sense of parental protection. “With this technology you can wind back the clock and see where everyone is, if they were parked at the house of someone other than their wife, a medical marijuana clinic, a Planned Parenthood center, a protest.”

"As Katz-Lacabe dug deeper, he found that the millions of pictures collected by San Leandro’s license plate cameras are now passed on to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), one of 72 federally run intelligence fusion organizations set up after 9/11. That’s where the photos are analyzed using software built by a company just across San Francisco Bay: Palantir."

"Katz-Lacabe wasn’t impressed. Palantir’s software, he points out, has no default time limits–all information remains searchable for as long as it’s stored on the customer’s servers. And its auditing function? “I don’t think it means a damn thing,” he says. “Logs aren’t useful unless someone is looking at them.”

"Palantir’s critics, unsurprisingly, aren’t reassured by Karp’s hypothetical court. Electronic Privacy Information Center activist Amie Stepanovich calls Palantir “naive” to expect the government to start policing its own use of technology. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Lee Tien derides Karp’s argument that privacy safeguards can be added to surveillance systems after the fact. “You should think about what to do with the toxic waste while you’re building the nuclear power plant,” he argues, “not some day in the future.”

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 6, 2015 at 5:43 am

Last I checked, Palantir has never made a nickel of profit.

6 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 6, 2015 at 10:17 am

Always good to have programs that help at least some kids. Let's not knock things just because our own kids do not benefit.

The real issue is the pathetic technical/computer training in the Palo Alto schools, particularly at Paly. This one program shouldn't be used to show how great the schools are doing. If a child is interested in computers, the only real option is outside of the schools. Definitely an area that needs work!

Like this comment
Posted by taxpayer
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 6, 2015 at 11:07 am

I don't recall criticizing the volunteers at Palantir, just PAUSD accepting that type of selective offer. This configuration is analogous to the immersion programs where selected students become fluent and others get a cursory language education at best.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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