A school district committee's recommendation to make computer science a high school graduation requirement has sparked opposition among students who say there is already an imbalance between STEM and humanities in Palo Alto Unified.
The Computer Science Curriculum Design Advisory Committee has recommended that computer science be treated like a core subject, offered in various forms from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and required to graduate from high school. Committee members argued to the school board on Tuesday night that computer science teaches skills beyond programming — critical thinking, problem solving, logic and the like — and that making instruction more widely available would level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots in Palo Alto.
Some high schoolers, however, bristled at the potential of an additional graduation requirement. They don't debate computer science's benefits but emphasized the importance of maintaining choice for students who are more passionate about history, social sciences and the arts.
"Because of where we are students are aware of the growing power of computer science," said Gunn High School student Claire Cheng. "My mom supports me coming out tonight but once I go home she's going to frequently remind me that computer science is a much more practical way to get a job. It takes courage for theses students to pursue something that they're passionate about despite their parents, their environment and their peers," she said.
A group of Gunn students lobbied the school board earlier this year for more advanced and honors humanities courses, which they said are less available than advanced STEM classes.
Students also worried about fitting another course into what feel like already impacted schedules. Paly senior Richy Islas, Palo Alto High School's student board representative, said that the additional requirement could be particularly stressful for students with disabilities who take academic planning classes on top of their regular courses.
The committee proposed that high schoolers could satisfy the graduation requirement by either taking one semesterlong introductory course or any of the existing yearlong courses offered at Paly and Gunn.
To avoid adding more units to the overall graduation requirements, the computer science course could replace required units in history-social studies, Career Technical Education or electives, the committee proposed. Doing so, the committee acknowledged, would reduce choices in those areas for students.
Currently, 519 students at both high schools, or 13 percent of the district's total high school population, are enrolled in computer science courses. Only 26 of them are underrepresented students and 157 are female, according to the committee.
"If we do nothing," one student committee member said, "we are promoting the opportunity gap."
Several board members described opposition to the graduation requirement as a "distraction" and urged staff to focus on integrating computer science into existing curricula, such as math or science classes.
"If we integrated this well at the lower grades, by the time it gets to high school whether it's required or not is not the most important question," said board member Terry Godfrey.
"This isn't a CS versus humanities conversation, she added. "We need it all."
Board President Ken Dauber said he supports a graduation requirement as an effective means to address inequities in access to computer science.
"If we believe that computer science is a critical skill for being a citizen in the modern world then we should not accept, we really can't accept a situation in which our female students and underrepresented minority students are not participating in that at the same levels," he said.
He asked staff, however, to take students' concerns into account and evaluate whether the current graduation requirements are "paying their weight in terms of value."
Gunn senior Advait Arun, the school board's student representative, urged, ambitiously, a total rethinking of "the way we do high school," which he described as defined by burdensome — and not necessarily helpful — academic requirements.
"Right now we're all working under a system collapsing under its own weight," he said.
Arun and others urged the board to gather more input from students, parents, teachers and even alumni before making a decision on computer science. Board member Melissa Baten Caswell requested involving more directly the high schools' Education Councils, or leadership teams.
Under the committee's proposal, there would be computer science teachers on special assignment at the elementary, middle and high schools overseen by lead teachers. The lead teachers would get release time to work on curriculum and professional development. Coding would also be incorporated into existing curriculum by classroom teachers.
The district would have a pre-K-12 computer science department and steering committee, as it does for core subjects.
Rolling out computer science districtwide would cost an estimated $1.9 million next year, $1.4 million in the 2019-20 school year, $2 million in 2020-21 and $2.6 million the following year.
The California Department of Education is in the midst of finalizing statewide content standards for computer science for elementary through high school.
Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks said staff will take board members' comments into account with an eye toward picking up the committee's proposals in the next school year.