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Looking Forward as We Say Goodbye: Three Years at South L.A.'s Foshay Tech Academy

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I said goodbye to my seniors today. We have been together since they were sophomores when we first met at the door of my classroom in August, 2010. I asked them if they remembered the first lesson I taught them. They all did. They told me how odd they thought it was that I greeted them with a handshake. How crazy that I would not let them enter my room until they looked me in the eye, with a solid handshake and a smile and CLEARLY said their name in introduction. It was nerve racking, it was silly, they told me. Yes, but it is three years later and they all still distinctly remember that experience. In fact, they now know it was an important lesson.

I just spent three years with these students at Foshay Learning Center, where I am the coordinator and lead teacher for the Technology Academy. It is an inner-city K-12 school in South Los Angeles where over 87% qualify for Title I funds. In 10th grade every student enters one of three academies: Health Careers, Finance, or Technology. If they join the Technology Academy then I am their career teacher for the duration of their high school years. We have a grant from the state that mandates that the students get mentors, internship opportunities, and that the students travel as a cohort to their English and History courses, and the other teachers and I team with a focus on a common career pathway. The academy is a supportive community that offers access and equity to every student to learn the skills necessary to navigate college and career.

This year all but one of my seniors are graduating, and 94% of them are going to college -- 20 to a four year college, and the rest with plans to transfer. Despite Foshay's inner city status, we boast one of the highest graduation rates in LAUSD: in 2013, 97% of our seniors graduated and we expect similar numbers this year, compared to LAUSD's rate of 66%. Our college rate is also not surprising, when you note that 94% of all Foshay seniors take the SAT or ACT, compared to only 52% from LAUSD. This college and career culture is something we begin with our students as early as middle school or elementary, since we are a span school. Many of the juniors and most of the graduating seniors in the Tech Academy have lined up summer jobs, internships, or are participating in summer enrichment courses.

Seniors meeting with Chief Technical Officer, Douglas Sellers from FitOrbit for a Q&A session
Seniors meeting with Chief Technical Officer, Douglas Sellers from FitOrbit for a Q&A session.

During their time in the Tech Academy my graduating seniors all learned HTML and CSS. They experienced Adobe Dreamweaver and Photoshop, and all created a digital portfolio using a free content management system such as Weebly or Wix, which they discovered and taught themselves through online research. The students all presented in front of their class and, much to their chagrin, in front of other middle and high school classes and business partners, on topics ranging from the ethical pros and cons of social media, cloud storage, and informing others about cool Web 2.0 websites. In fact their culminating project ended at the advertising agency, Ignited USA, in a room full of professional executives, where the students delivered the plans for their full scale ad campaigns that raised awareness about online reputation, digital footprints, texting and driving. As part of their campaigns the groups worked together to create a stunt called "Moving Forward with Technology," for which they wrote a press release and got a news crew from USC to cover the story.

These students have taught underclassmen and teachers to make web sites. They have advertised and participated in the first ever Hour of Code, an initiative to show that "every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science." They also taught the parents and elementary students on our campus how to code, including some adults who had never used a mouse before.

So yes, I feel proud. My students have learned; the three years have not been wasted. Then why am I racked with second guessing their experiences? I am anxious because I want to know that they will be able to navigate the world of college and career on their own. These students are first generation to go to college, and most do not have a network of friends and family to help them know what to expect in college, or have a family friend who will set them up with their first entry level job. When I had them do mock interviews they would often not share the most impressive parts about themselves because they did not want to brag. This was the inspiration for the digital portfolios and my constant focus on helping them learn to effectively and proactively communicate, so they could learn to create and take advantage of opportunities.

Seniors Karina Carvajal, Elizabeth Arguilez, Luis Lainez, Katheryn Alarcon and Javier Elias preparing to present their ad campaigns at Ignited USA
Seniors Karina Carvajal, Elizabeth Arguilez, Luis Lainez, Katheryn Alarcon and Javier Elias preparing to present their ad campaigns at Ignited USA.

I go back to what we did and wonder, was there enough critical thinking and learning about current events? Did I cover too much breadth and not enough depth in certain areas? What do I need to tweak and alter so that it is better next year?

Some of these questions come because I always want to be sure that the Tech Academy is running at the top of our game. Also because many students don't yet believe that the work they do to build up their digital portfolios and computer science skills will be recognized or taken seriously. I know the academy is on the right track because I check in with business partners on a regular basis to make sure there is relevancy in the curriculum. Even more reassuring is when I get unsolicited emails and Facebook posts from my alumni who thank me and tell me they got a job because of their resume and portfolio; that is always the best.

Since I first took over the academy 11 years ago, it has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2010 we were selected by the state as a model career academy to help others who were developing their own academies. I now teach Exploring Computer Science, Programming and Game Design, and Digital Art and Advertising. I have a large network of business partners and mentors who helped many of my students get jobs and internships this summer, in areas related to technology and computer science.

Students participate in mock interviews
Students participate in mock interviews.

The students learn that the world of technology is ever changing, and it is impossible to think someone knows it all. It is not just computer science that is the most important thing the students do in my class; they also need to learn how to be communicators, problem solvers, and be able to teach themselves and adapt. I now teach my students to be critical researchers, to analyze solutions and troubleshoot -- and go out of their comfort zones because if they are just waiting to follow what I say, then what real world skills are they really learning?

So yes, I said goodbye to students that have been with me for three years, and it is a bit sad and nostalgic.I think about what we have done over the course of our three years and the memories we have created together. It also creates a desire to look forward to the new students, and think about how to improve in order to tackle the new challenges that are about to walk through the door.

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