Code4Life Teaches Vital Skills to Inner City Kids

During the 2016 election cycle, there’s been a lot of talk about technology jobs going to foreign workers. But, the truth is, there hasn’t been enough focus on encouraging young students to embrace STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields in the United States, leaving young Americans lagging behind their international peers academically and later professionally.

Unfortunately, students living in America’s inner cities are often among the last candidates either qualified or considered for these positions. In fact, white men hold about 90 percent of the computer science jobs in the United States.

One nonprofit in our nation’s capital is working to reverse this trend. Economic Growth DC Foundation, an economic policy advocacy organization focused on the city’s stagnant growth, launched Code4Life, an initiative that provides D.C.’s poorest students with the opportunity to learn how to program from experienced computer engineers.

Economic Growth DC Foundation Executive Director Dave Oberting founded Code4Life after discovering just how poorly prepared D.C. residents were for professional life. This reinforces systemic, widespread poverty.

“A functioning job training system would be the best anti-poverty tool we have, but that’s not the reality in D.C.,” Oberting said. “We spend $125 million annually on training that is largely ineffective or obsolete, and we do a horrible job of actually connecting workforce participants to actual jobs.”

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One of Code4Life’s volunteers teaches a class at Kipp Academy in Northeast Washington, DC. | Photo: EGDC Foundation

Because the system is so ineffective, the foundation decided to step in with its own effort. “There’s just no time for a dysfunctional system to repair itself, so we started looking for occupations in which we could train District residents on our own,” Oberting explained.

In a partnership with technology giant Accenture and the publicly funded Children’s Youth Investment Trust, Code4Life features 50 young professionals or graduate students who offer hands-on instruction for the children who elect to participate. Their self-enrollment indicates an earnest desire to learn, and Code4Life believes they should have qualified mentors guiding them along the way.

The Code4Life curriculum is broken into eight-week modules. During this time, classes meet for two hours after school one day each week. Each module focuses on a different level of expertise, from a basic introduction to coding to data analytics to creating smartphone applications.

Currently, the program thrives in four inner-city middle schools with plans to expand elsewhere across the District. Every child enrolled is African American and approximately 60 percent are female. Nearly every participant lives at or below the poverty line, and their participation in Code4Life is free.

Oberting believes that inspiring a passion for technology early in life can help boost a student’s chances at economic mobility when she’s older.

“Statistically speaking, a child who starts in the first grade in a District of Columbia public school has a one in 10 chance of actually graduating from a four-year college. The other 90 percent need a set of skills that will allow them to earn a middle class living in the first half of the 21st century,” Oberting said.

“Coding is a profession that can be $80,000 to $100,000 per year — much higher than the $53,000 national median income — and it doesn’t necessarily require a college degree,” he added.

Oberting says that there are real job opportunities for those trained to code, but there simply is a shortage of skilled candidates to fill them.

“The District has 40,000 open coding jobs that it can’t fill because we have a shortage of programming talent. The country has a million open positions,” he said.

Code4Life hopes to help fill those positions with trained professionals from Washington, D.C.’s inner city, setting them on a path to economic mobility and personal fulfillment. In doing so, they’ll help their country, too.  

Ellen Carmichael is a senior writer for Opportunity Lives. Follow her on Twitter @ellencarmichael.

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