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For Englewood 'Coders,' a Transformative Summer

Sixteen-year-old Dallas Battle is one of the first to present at the Englewood Codes demo night in late August, with 60 parents and supporters in the audience. Showing off a website built by her team, called the Phenomenal Women, she doesn’t disappoint.

“Honestly,” she said, “you will not find another group of women like us, who know how to code.”

The crowd roars its approval.

Students practiced their presentations as they built out websites.

Demond Drummer

In a 10-week course sponsored by the community-development group Teamwork Englewood on Chicago’s South Side, Battle learned how to use HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Twitter Bootstrap and GitHub.

Among the program’s 24 other graduates were Kyi Massey, whose teammates call him “a coding machine”; Tony Robinson, who “can barely take his eyes off the screen when he’s coding”; Danajae Ballard, who seemed shy at first but ended up “always present and always ready to help everybody”; and Angela Jordan: “I like to code, actually,” she said. “This program made me want to go into computer technology. This is my senior year and it could be one of my majors.”

Ramping up

Englewood Codes launched this summer after three years of investment by neighborhood leaders in digital and tech programming—an investment that will be extended by a new Knight Foundation Open Gov grant. Earlier work called Smart Communities transformed young and old residents into enthusiastic Internet users, boosting internet usage by 15 percent in the five target neighborhoods including Englewood.

All students worked in teams to design and build their websites.

Demond Drummer

The coding program took it a step further for the group of 25 students who mostly had no coding experience at all.

They learned what it takes to build websites, from digital photography and font selection to forking code and dealing with a software update the day before a presentation. They worked as teams, calling on each other to fix bugs, edit content and clean up graphics. They roughed out concepts for apps and widgets, and they fiddled with hardware, configuring little Raspberry Pi processors.

Every student spoke during the demo, some of them nervous or halting, others triumphant and laughing along with their teammates. Watching them—and hearing the pleased murmurs of relatives and friends—suggested that the summer coursework had burned lasting memories into supple teenage brains.

Leading demo night and the Englewood Codes program was Demond Drummer, a former Obama-campaign organizer who taught himself to code before signing on with Teamwork Englewood as a “tech organizer.”

Building tech talent

In the tradition of tech-company pitches, Drummer created a pep-rally tone, pacing the floor of Kennedy-King College’s black-box theater as he extolled the students’ potential. He called out individuals for special praise – including Melody Brooks, who served as leadership instructor and mentor, and Anthony Britton, a math teacher at nearby Stagg Elementary School who pitched in as a National Summer Learning Association Teaching Fellow. And he noted that he got “nothing but support” from Teamwork Englewood Executive Director Juandalyn Holland.

Students worked under time pressure to deliver segments of code that would display different parts of the site.

Demond Drummer

“Englewood Codes came to Englewood because, when we look at the tech organizations and technology companies, none of their employees look like us,” said Holland. “But all of our children use Facebook, they’re on Twitter, all of our kids know how to use cell phones. So Demond said to me, ‘Tell you what, I’ll take 25 kids and I’ll guarantee you they’ll learn how to code over the summer.’”

“So I said to him, ‘Get those children working.’”

And work they did. Englewood Codes was a high-performance environment, Drummer said, with daily deliverables expected from every student. “Yes, we kicked out some, and some students dropped,” Drummer added. “Let me assure you, it was not for lack of talent, but a lack of discipline and of wanting to comply with our ground rules and professionalism.”

Strong support

The program launched with a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign that exceeded its original $5,500 goal in two days, thanks to strong support from local residents as well as Chicago’s tech community. It had additional support from the City of Chicago’s After School Matters program; Kennedy-King College, which offered its computer labs; and LISC Chicago, which brought the original Smart Communities grant to Englewood and now is coordinating the Open Gov work in Englewood, Pilsen and other neighborhoods.

Students also tinkered with hardware, configuring tiny Raspberry Pi processors and hooking them to monitors and keyboards.

Demond Drummer

There are more training sessions this fall, with intensive use of JavaScript and a goal of teaching students Python by next summer. In October, a team of Englewood Codes students will participate in a Center for Neighborhood Technology apps competition on urban sustainability. Later, youth will get involved on the Open Gov work.

And when those conversations begin—bridging neighborhood residents across to government data people and Chicago’s civic app activists­—you can bet that some of the Englewood coders will be right in there, speaking their new language.

A version of this story appeared on the Knight Blog

Posted in Civic Tech, Englewood


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