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Oakland Program Aims to Pique Girls’ Interest in Science, Tech Careers

December 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
As part of the NewsHour's American Graduate series, correspondent Spencer Michels reports on Techbridge, an after-school program based in Oakland, Calif., that shows hundreds of female students a path to pursuing careers in science and technology, while also trying to minimize the chances of them dropping out of school.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, enticing students, especially girls, to stay in school by promoting a future for them in science, technology or engineering.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has the story. It’s part of our American Graduate series: an 18-month project with other public media partners to examine the causes of and solutions to the high school dropout problem.

MAN: So this was a weapon to attack usually a castle.

SPENCER MICHELS: In an after school class at Frick Middle School in Oakland, Calif., 20 girls are trying to figure out how to build a catapult out of tongue depressors and rubber bands.

WOMAN: Okay. So, you need to maybe figure out how to stop it there.

SPENCER MICHELS: Among them is 13-year-old Ebony Green, an eighth-grader who decided to sign up for this extra science class to improve her academic record and her chances of finishing school and going to college.

WOMAN: Try it again.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ebony is one of 600 middle school and high school girls in Oakland and nearby cities enrolled in a program called Techbridge, which tries to inspire them to enter fields traditionally dominated by white or Asian males.

At the same time, it keeps kids at risk of dropping out interested in school. Techbridge lets girls engineer and build things on their own, with a little help.

WOMAN: Whoa!

WOMAN: Whoa!

STUDENT: There you go.

EBONY GREEN, student: It’s interesting. I never knew about soldering, or I never knew about crystals or anything like that. And since I’m interested in that, I wanted to get into a program where there’s a lot about it.

SPENCER MICHELS: In addition to Techbridge, she’s also taking part in school activities like cheerleading, which also meets after school. It’s dark when she finishes practice and walks the six blocks home from school, through a neighborhood where police sirens are commonplace.

EBONY GREEN: The hard part is probably living in a bad neighborhood. I know people that go here, and they, like, get in a lot of trouble and they’re loud sometimes. And police, like, comes over here sometimes for next-door neighbors or something like that, loud music and stuff like that, disturbances.

SPENCER MICHELS: She comes from a single-parent family. Her mother, Ina Hubbard, finds work occasionally as a home care worker, and has two other children.

INA HUBBARD, mother of Ebony Green: I have lived in worse neighborhoods growing up. So, you know, it’s not really bad. But she doesn’t go outside much, you know, hang out with the neighborhood kids or anything.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ebony does pretty well at school, not great. At home, she has a computer, but no Internet connection. She says it costs too much. She is frequently late for class, often an indication of problems.

EBONY GREEN: When I get up in the morning, I don’t get up like really early, so I have — a lot of times, I have to rush. And then when I get to school, I get there late.

SPENCER MICHELS: Kevin Eastman, like many teachers in the Oakland schools, routinely deals with children having trouble.

KEVIN EASTMAN, science teacher: Rudolfo, you need a pass.

SPENCER MICHELS: Eastman teaches regular science classes at Frick. Once a week, after school, Eastman spends two hours at Techbridge, which pays him, using grant money, to hook kids on learning.

STUDENT: Oh, touchdown!

KEVIN EASTMAN: Well, I think science is probably one of the easiest things to get them interested in. I know I’ve taught a lot of math, and kids are really frustrated and struggling in math because of lack of skills.

EBONY GREEN: I get confused very easily when I’m doing math.

KEVIN EASTMAN: So, science is a place where we can do some things that are fun, intriguing, challenging.

SPENCER MICHELS: Techbridge is enthusiastically endorsed by Oakland school officials.

And Oakland can use the help. It’s a city with startling contrasts of wealth, boasting charming hillside neighborhoods with bay views and good schools. Still, 45 percent of Oakland children don’t attend Oakland public schools.

The city also contains large pockets of poverty, mostly in the flatlands, where Ebony’s family lives. Taken together, the city’s public schools have an alarmingly high dropout rate. Only about half those enrolled graduate from high school, according to Tony Smith, school superintendent for the last two years.

TONY SMITH, Oakland Schools superintendent: I think we haven’t designed schools and the education system in ways that really meet the needs of all young people, in particular children of color.

African-American, Latino kids are being pushed out faster than anybody else. And that plays out then in terms of who’s employed and who isn’t. It plays out in terms of the crime, in terms of the extraordinary murder rate and violence in Oakland.

SPENCER MICHELS: Recent State Department of Education figures show that 3 percent of eighth-grade students in Oakland drop out before starting high school. For the superintendent, a major problem is that the students themselves and some educators don’t expect much of the kids.

TONY SMITH: When you have patterns in the system of particular groups of kids not taking either advanced placement course or staying in school, or coming in so far below grade level, that people start to expect less and less.

SPENCER MICHELS: Those are issues educators and nonprofit groups have been trying to figure out for decades.

Techbridge, one of those groups, was founded in Oakland by Linda Kekelis, who puts a lot of stock in positive role models.

LINDA KEKELIS, founder, Techbridge: A lot of the girls that we work with never think about becoming an engineer or being a computer programmer. For girls from more disadvantaged areas and under-resourced schools, they do have less access to role models. They haven’t met an engineer. They haven’t met somebody in computer programming who could say what great jobs there are in these fields.

SPENCER MICHELS: Techbridge attacks that problem head on by taking its girls on field trips to high-tech companies like Google, companies that are crying out for technically trained workers, and not finding enough.

WOMAN: Has anybody done any kind of programming at all before? Has anybody used Scratch before?

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s a chance to see women at work in science and technology.

WOMAN: How many of you have ever clicked on “I’m feeling lucky”?

SPENCER MICHELS: In short classes — this one is “The Sophisticated Use of Search” — they learn from Google employees.

TASHA BERGSON-MICHELSON, Google librarian: This is a chance for me to reach out to these girls and show them something that’s possible for them, a route that could be theirs.

SPENCER MICHELS: At lunch in the big Google cafeteria, they sit next to women software engineers and programmers, some only a few years older than the girls.

STUDENT: We do competitions in math.

WOMAN: Yeah, what kind?

SPENCER MICHELS: One of Techbridge’s goals is to convince the girls that hard work actually pays off.

LINDA KEKELIS: And I think part of the message that Techbridge wants to communicate is that science and engineering are fun and really cool, but that it also involves working hard, and that working hard really can help you in your future.

And we’ll talk about a really hard math class that they took, how they found a tutor, studied harder, talked with teachers after school to get support.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ebony Green is getting tutored in math.

INA HUBBARD: Ebony is a real hard worker. So, I think that she’s going to make it, because she tries hard.

EBONY GREEN: A lot of kids, they’ll just, like — they will be, like, that they’re going to do good, but they’re — they usually just don’t. They just say they will.

But when I say it, I like actually try. And, sometimes, I fail. Sometimes, I fail, but I just try again. I’m not like other kids. I want to be, like, a lot of things, but I know that I’m going to have to choose a couple. And there are vet, an actress, a home designer, a fashion designer and a pediatrician.

SPENCER MICHELS: Those goals are not impossible, say independent evaluators, who rate Techbridge high in changing attitudes, knowledge and career aspirations of its girls.

At the Stanford School of Education, the dean, Claude Steele, says that girls can succeed in technology.

CLAUDE STEELE, dean, Stanford School of Education: I think you definitely can get them interested in tech. Even kids who don’t have the best academic skills, when they get their hands on something, they realize they can understand it. And understanding it excites them.

EBONY GREEN: I think it’s going to lead me to go, like, to a scientific college. When I get to high school, I might still be interested in science, and I might be doing, like, really good in it, and I can probably get a couple scholarships.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ebony, working often on her own, has figured out how to build complicated things with her own hands. And that’s a source of pride and encouragement.

In the last 11 years, 3,000 girls have taken part in Techbridge. For Ebony, the program may be the nudge she needs to stay in school.

RAY SUAREZ: Spencer’s story is part of our American Graduate series, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

On our website, we have extended interviews Spencer did with Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith and Claude Steele, the dean of Stanford’s School of Education.