Computer code is in our phones, traffic lights, and coffee makers. Jobs in computer science (CS) are in such high demand that thousands go unfilled every year. Schools strive to engage students in non-traditional ways that are not necessarily college bound. Against such a backdrop, Toms River Regional Schools was recently awarded NJDOE funding to create “TR:CS4All: Toms River Regional Computer Science For All.”
To qualify, applicants had to address one of three tasks: develop a new advanced CS course; offer college credit for completing the course; and provide a pathway to industry-valued certifications. The district decided it could address all three. It is designing twin courses at both the honors and college prep level, partnered with Ocean County College on a dual enrollment agreement, identified potential programs of study in CS leading to certifications. The grant will also help the district’s three high schools get a jump start on a proposed state requirement that all students take at least one course in computer science to graduate by 2022.
The program, and CS in general, is about far more than learning a new electronic language. According to High School East teacher Suzanne Signorelli, “Learning computer science is also about developing a particular way of thinking. Students who learn to code apply trial and error, inductive reasoning, and problem solving skills that can transfer into everything they do.”
District staff and students had already validated the idea that one course in coding is not enough. Using a 2018 grant from the Office of Naval Research, it established the TR:TechReady program, which tested six programming languages across several disciplines– science, English, arts, and world languages included. That approach will also be woven into TRCS4All.
“Just as taking a semester of personal finance won’t make students experts at balancing their checkbooks as adults,” says Assistant Superintendent Marc Natanagara, who has been lead writer on several grants, “if students are only exposed to coding in computer science class, they are unlikely to see the connection to their lives.”
Coding has not just been limited to the secondary schools. Toms River Regional has a strong background in providing meaningful technology challenges and experiences to its 15,500 PreK-12 students.
“Kindergarteners can use algorithmic thinking and logic to model coding and solve problems without even being able to read,” says Educational Technology Supervisor Tiffany Lucey. “The sooner we give students these learning opportunities, the more prepared they will be for college and careers.”
The Board has committed increased funding to technology infrastructure and devices over the past five years. Teachers are increasingly using technologies to personalize learning and expand student access to resources. Every one of the district’s 18 schools develops activities for the annual Computer Science Education Week’s Hour of Code. It has the largest participation in NJ Makers Day. And for the past four years, staff and students have run the Jersey Shore Makerfest, the largest non-profit hands-on maker event on the east coast.
The district’s efforts have become increasingly visible over the past five years. They were among the few districts chosen for recognition in the Department of Education’s InnovateNJ and Future Ready Schools programs. Staff have presented at local, regional, and national conferences on their use of coding, technology, problem-based learning, and the maker mindset. And, with TR:CS4All, they’ve become one of only 10 educational institutions throughout New Jersey to be awarded the competitive advanced computer science grant.
These successes have been possible even in the face of a financial crisis. The district learned last year that state education funding would be drastically reduced by $70 million over the next six years, a situation district leaders are working ardently to reverse. Its funding struggles have not prevented Toms River Regional Schools from pursuing alternate sources of funding to meet annual board-approved goals. The nearly $100k computer science grant increases an already impressive total of more than $3 million in alternative revenue secured over the past four years, including both grants and sponsorships.
“Despite the extreme financial hardships imposed on our district, we’ve never relented from providing our students opportunities to succeed, by any means necessary, and this grant award is further proof of that initiative,” said Superintendent David Healy. “We’ve been consistently committed to offering our students the skills and experiences to thrive in post-secondary studies and modern careers, and it’s been personally and professionally rewarding to see our reputation grow as a leader in technology-infused education.”
TR:CS4All, like TR:TechReady, will additionally focus on bringing underserved and underrepresented populations to the field of computer science. Nationally and globally, statistics show this includes girls, people of color, and the economically disadvantaged.
“It’s clear to our school board that the main question this district asks as it approaches various opportunities is, ‘Will this help our students?’” said Board President Joseph Nardini. “That student-driven approach echoes the mission of our board, making it a no-brainer to support the district’s pursuit of competitive grants like this. We’re proud to be able to announce another prestigious grant, and excited to see where this takes our students.”
The grant period will span 17.5 months, with a planning period running January 15 through June 30 and a program period that will run July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020. TR:CS4All will be led by a “STEAM Dream Team” of educators including Ms. Signorelli, Ms. Lucey, CS teachers Camille Anne Corrado and John Miller, High School Math Supervisor Helen Crowley, and Secondary Supervisor Norma DeNoia.