African American Enrollment in Computer Science Courses on the Rise

The percentage of African American students taking a high school computer science class in Arkansas has exceeded the general high school population of students for the first time.

Shanta Calhoun, a teacher a Pine Bluff High School, speaks at the governor’s computer science enrollment press conference Nov. 18, 2020.

The percentage of African American students taking a high school computer science class in Arkansas has exceeded the general high school population of students for the first time. Governor Asa Hutchinson made the announcement while delivering a report on high school computer science enrollment this morning at the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock.

“We have had some success in decreasing that disparity and that gap and increasing opportunity,” Hutchinson said. “And that is what computer science is about—opportunities for good-paying jobs in a world that needs software developers, that needs IT specialists, that needs all of the skills that come with computer science education.”

African American students account for 19.2 percent of Arkansas high school students, but they represent 19.6 percent of students enrolled in a computer science course, according to the Arkansas Department of Education. ADE also reports the numbers of girls taking at least one computer science class increased by 283 to 3,135, a 28 percent increase over the past year.

Gov. Hutchinson said he was concerned enrollment in computer science courses would decline this year because of the pandemic; however, enrollment has continued to go up. ADH reports 10,450 students enrolled in computer science classes this year, an increase of more than 600 from the previous year. That’s also a significant increase from the 1,104 students enrolled in courses during the 2014-2015 school year. Arkansas was the first state to require all high schools to teach computer science after Gov. Hutchinson signed Act 187 into law in 2015.

To ensure even more participation, the governor announced legislation will be introduced during the 93rd General Assembly that would require students to have a computer science credit to graduate. Each high school would also be required to employ at least one certified computer science teacher. Senator Jane English, a Republican from North Little Rock, is sponsoring the bill. For the last five years, the governor’s initiative has required high schools to offer computer science courses, but students were not required to take them.

Computer Science Growth Chart

Shanta Calhoun teaches computer science at Pine Bluff High School and said this year has been a tough one.

“The difficult part is trying to teach them virtually and teach them through emails, but our kids are getting it and I’m very excited that it’s going to be a requirement for all students to take computer science classes,” Calhoun said. “It just exposes more students. Right now the students have an option to take computer science so you might not get as much participation as you normally would if it’s a requirement.”

Efforts are underway to help students take their computer science skills into college and the workforce. For example, as part of its Girls of Promise initiative, the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas has created the Tjuana Byrd Summer Internship Program. The internship is named after the foundation’s first Black president and it went live yesterday.

“Our organization wants to see a workforce that has equity in it,” said Anna Beth Gorman, executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas. “We want to see young women, women of color participating in that workforce.”

Through the internship, Acxiom, Central Arkansas Water, L’Oréal  and Windstream will each host four interns and pay them $15 to $20 an hour. The 10-week summer internship is for women of color attending college in Arkansas who are pursuing degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Free housing, access to mentorship and networking events and professional development workshops will be provided to participants.

The program is designed to increase access to and representation in STEM fields for women of color in Arkansas “by eliminating barriers of cost, social capital and location,” according to the Girls of Promise website.

The application deadline is Dec. 20. More information is available at girlsofpromise.org.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.