LA Unified high school puts a focus on computer science and gaming
Mike Szymanski | November 24, 2015
At a high school called the Critical Design and Gaming School, you’d think every student had a device on and was playing a game all the time. Not so.
In fact, during one recent morning lesson, students opened up boxes of traditional board games to play with each other.
“They find out pretty quickly it’s not about playing games the whole time,” said computer science teacher Nancy Se. But, the students do learn computer coding, build websites and design games on programs that have created their favorite apps and launched games like Assassin’s Creed. “I teach them that computer science equals wealth equals power, and that is what could happen if you become one of the producers making games.”
It’s no secret that computer gaming is a major segment of of the entertainment industry. It’s also no secret that the gaming field is dominated by white and Asian males.
That’s why, if the black and Latino population of south LA can be introduced to the world of computer design and gaming, then principal Andre Hargunani would have accomplished a major goal. Hargunani came out of school with a computer engineering degree, and he programmed games himself. He could pick any job because there was such a high demand. He chose academia.
“I knew first hand that it’s mainly white and Asian males working in that field, and we could give the students of south central Los Angeles an opportunity of knowing about this profession that they would not have anywhere else,” said Hargunani, who is beginning his fourth year as principal of the new pilot school that has about 400 students. “It would be great if we could inspire African Americans and Latinos into that world where there is such a high demand in the job market.”
The new Augustus High School building has three pilot programs. The computer gaming program shares space with the social justice Responsible Indigenous Social Entrepreneurship School and the health-related Community Health Advocates School.
When the school opened, about half of the students came to the gaming program because they didn’t want to go to the other two schools in their neighborhood. But now, even more students are eager to join.
Hargunani first held community forums at the local public library to see if parents and students were interested in technology. “Of course, the students were very interested in gaming,” the principal said. “But we didn’t want to plant some foreign object into the community, we wanted it to be something that grew organically.”
And so, LAUSD’s director of secondary instruction, Derrick Chau, used Hargunani as an example of the importance of teaching computer science when he made a presentation recently to the school board’s Curriculum, Instruction and Educational Equity Committee.
“When I was a child in Fresno, it was critically important it is to have exposure and access around computer science,” Chau said. In middle school he learned computer language and how to create things and be a designer. “It was a really great experience.”
Today the Critical Design and Gaming School is a one-of-its kind pilot program where all 9th graders learn computer science, and they progressively learn game design foundations over four years. The problem solving for English essays, the algebra they use for coding and science classes all fall into some area of computer design. A mother who works at the front office said her son is a rap musician graduating this year from the gaming school and is interested in the technology behind it, rather than performing.
“Ultimately, the students are becoming more engaged in school,” said Hargunani. “The students are interested in engineering and going for those degrees.”
Jackie Paredes, who teaches the advanced Computer Programming and Game Design class, had an electrical engineering major when Hargunani approached her to teach at his specialized school. She said she ended up buying an Xbox and playing games all summer before teaching the class.
“The exposure to this community is needed; there are so many creative students,” said Paredes, who came from a small rural town in Ventura County. “Programming is about procedures. If I make a mistake it does not work out, just like a math problem.”
Having female instructors such as Se and Paredes helps attract girls to the program, but the school is mostly male.
The classes also involve special needs students, and English Language learners who have translators in the class. Some of the students don’t know how to type when they first come to the class, and many don’t have their own laptops at home.
“Just because everyone may have a cell phone and they text or look up things on social media doesn’t mean they are good at computer science,” Se said. “And sometimes, they feel like giving up because it is hard, but we show them how to look at the problem differently.”
Hargunani said he delights in having success stories, such as the UC Santa Cruz graduate two years ago now studying engineering.
“It is a major she never thought she would be doing,” the principal said. “But she is the only female in her classes, so obviously we need to expand.”