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New Haven’s LEAP brings technology training to kids, with help from grants

Dr. William Petit awards LEAP and its students $5,000 in grant funding.

NEW HAVEN >> Paris Huckaby, 15, a student at James Hillhouse High School, already knows how to code a website.

Three days a week, Paris and a dozen other students file into the computer lab at LEAP to learn how to debug or design patterns or functions in HTML code.

Computer science major Jacqueline Wellington, who attends the University of Rhode Island, interns with LEAP, and recently was helping four girls design buttons on a live website. She said the girls, all 15 or 16, are breezing through some things that give college students trouble.

“They’ve surprised me a lot. It’s crazy how well they pick this up,” she said.

The “target population” for the computer programming project, LEAP Executive Director Henry Fernandez said, is girls of color from low-income neighborhoods. It is a group that Fernandez said the computer science profession is currently lacking. LEAP sees this as an issue that starts from the ground floor, in education.

“I know for myself this was one of the ways I got into college and one of the ways I paid to go to college. Because I could program a computer,” Fernandez said. “If you are a kid from an inner city background and you can write computer code, your chances of getting into college go up dramatically because its such an uncommon skill set to have right now.”

LEAP recently received three grants specifically for this program, a total of $15,000. The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven’s Fund for Women and Girls, the Liberty Bank Foundation and thePetit Family Foundation each gave $5,000.

Ahndiya Bradley, 15, from Highville Charter School, called the program a good experience. It’s summertime, she said, but they’re still learning. Ijan Whitaker, 16, of Metropolitan Business Academy, repeated the sentiment.

“I think it’s a very positive program to be in,” she said. “It helps you do things that you’ve never done before.”

LEAP runs programs year-round. The roughly 600 students served are pulled primarily from five neighborhoods: Dixwell, Dwight-Kensington, Farnam Courts, Church Street South and Fair Haven.

Fernandez said their big summer program is a seven-week, Monday-Friday multi-course program. LEAP also runs after-school and weekend programs during the school year.

What is unique about LEAP, Fernandez said, is that all of the programming is administered by young people. The counselors all are high school and college-age students and LEAP employs roughly 50 of each.

LEAP is seeking to address the educational weaknesses of low-income minority youths. Fernandez said LEAP looks at national data such as advanced placement test numbers based on race, and formulates its curriculum based on these numbers.

This led to something as simple as a “very significant” swim instruction program at LEAP. Children of color are three times more likely to drown than white children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control .

“Basically because kids don’t learn how to swim in our communities,” Fernandez said.

The same goes for literacy. This is the primary program at LEAP, Fernandez said, especially in the groups of kids who are 7 to 12 years old. He noted low-income children especially do not read books over the summer, resulting in a literacy achievement gap. LEAP is working to remedy this by having its children read 17 books every summer as part of its programs.

One of the greatest inefficiencies, based on advanced placement test data, is the lack of low-income minority girls learning about and entering the field of computer science.

“The numbers in terms of who takes computer science classes are pretty staggering,” Fernandez said.

In 2014, 642 Connecticut students took the AP test for computer science; 414 were white, 148 were Asian American, 20 were African American and 27 were Hispanic. Just 22 percent of the total computer science test-takers were female.

For that reason, LEAP has made a “special effort” to ensure girls participate. More than half of the current coding class is female. These students, Fernandez said, are gaining the building blocks to eventually write applications in a growing market.

“All of that requires coding. Young people who do that will have tremendous job opportunities,” he said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a software designer in 2012 was $93,350 per year. The median pay for web developers in 2012 was $62,500.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the information about the sources of the grants. Reach Ryan Flynn at 203-680-9962.

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