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Board to discuss implementing semester-long computer science course requirement

committee established last year to promote computer science education in Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) is advocating for the addition of a computer science graduation requirement for high school students. The committee is expected to formally present this proposal to the PAUSD Board of Education for its review as soon as May 8.

According to Robbie Selwyn, a Paly junior and member of PAUSD’s Computer Science Curriculum Design Advisory Committee (CDAC), the committee informed the Board last spring of its recommendation to add a semester of computer science to the existing high school requirements, along with a few other suggestions.

William Friebel, a math and computer science teacher at Paly, is supportive of the potential requirement.

“[Coding is] a basic skill that everyone should have coming out of high school. In the modern age, technology is just so prevalent that understanding, at the very basic level, how things work is a new form of literacy that we need to add on. We still need mathematical literacy, we still need literacy in English and our language, but now we also need at least a basic competence with technological literacy.”

William Friebel, Paly math teacher

This push for increased computer science literacy stems from a societal shift towards computer dependence, according to Friebel.

“You need to be comfortable in the media that are prevalent in your society,” Friebel said. “Since in our society and our time it is all done via technology, you need to have a basic competency in that to participate. Also, many industries are going to be using some sort of coding or computer science as an aspect of your job, even if you aren’t a software developer or an engineer of some kind… I think it’s a very valuable tool that people can then take to progress in whatever direction they choose to take.”

Christopher Kuszmaul, a Paly computer science teacher and a member of CDAC, shares Friebel’s viewpoints. According to Kuszmaul, approximately 750 students graduate from PAUSD each year without taking any computer science courses.

Junior Ashley Hitchings has mixed feelings about a potential computer science course requirement.

“On one hand, I think technology is the future, so it’s really important for students to be well-versed in technological skills. But also on the other hand, by requiring everyone to take computer science classes, we’re pushing students to focus in STEM in a community that’s already disproportionately pushing students towards the STEM industry and could be harmful to students interested in the liberal arts.”

Junior Ashley Hitchings

School Board Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza has similar concerns. DiBrienza fears adding more requirements would leave less room for flexibility, and said the Board is interested in discussing the implications of implementing such a curriculum. However, DiBrienza is aware of the community’s interest in discussing a computer science course requirement and sees both sides of the argument.

“I have not formed an opinion yet,” DiBrienza said.”I definitely acknowledge that there are pros and cons on each side. Obviously computer science is becoming more and more of a vital part of just functioning in our daily lives to some extent. Yet we require a lot for [high schoolers] to graduate, and I think it’s really important we leave you some flexibility and some room for some electives in what you want to pursue.”

The computer curriculum committee has wrestled with many of the same concerns expressed by Hitchings and DiBrienza — that adding a computer science requirement could interfere with students’ freedom to select classes based on their passion.

“I know students already have a lot on their plate; something that we are definitely considering is how do we make sure that [the added requirement] is not something that would take away from other classes,” Selwyn said. “We briefly discussed letting it double-count for the Career Tech Education (CTE) and the CS requirement so that people don’t have to take two different CTE [for] credits, but I’m not sure that is legally possible given the way graduation requirements work.”

The main objective of Paly’s course requirements is to ensure all students graduate as well-educated adults, Selwyn said. For example, Living Skills and CTE requirements both aim to prepare students for life beyond high school. According to Selwyn, CDAC’s goal is to advocate for the recognition of computer science as a tool necessary to becoming a well-educated adult.

However, Paly visual arts teacher Susan La Fetra disagrees with CDAC’s take on what it means to be an achieved adult.

“I really think that there are people who do not need programming to have a successful life, therefore making it a [required course] is a little bit extreme,” La Fetra said. “One does need to be competent to use computer application.”

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