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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Record Number Of Black Students Set To Take AP Computer Science Exam In Milwaukee

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 9.1% of Black people hold computer and math related jobs. Milwaukee Excellence Charter School Principal Lita Mallett says her goal is to give all students the ability to pursue the field if they want.

More than 100 Black students at Milwaukee Excellence Charter School are taking an Advanced Placement (AP) computer science exam on Monday. That’s more than four times the number of Black students in the entire state who took the test a year ago.

Before Milwaukee Public Schools let out for holiday break last December, WUWM’s Race & Ethnicity reporter Teran Powell sat in on a virtual class at Milwaukee Excellence Charter School with sophomores who were preparing to take their AP Computer Science Principles final exams.

Course instructor Mark Taylor kicked off the day with a question.

“So, it is 8 o’clock, wanna get started with our quick question of the day: What are you going to do to ensure you do well on your finals?” said Taylor.

Powell visited his class again — this time in person — with just over a week until the test date. Taylor was the only one in the classroom because of the hybrid learning model, but students were still engaged.

Computer science teacher Mark Taylor talks to his students virtually a week before the AP test.
Computer science teacher Mark Taylor talks to his students virtually a week before the AP test.

Many of these students have been taking computer science and coding classes since sixth grade. Milwaukee Excellence is a sixth through 12th grade school where more than 90% of the students are African American.

The high school principal, Lita Mallett, says among the goals staff have for students is giving them essential skills that allow them to succeed and stand out in a competitive workforce. She says it’s about them having choices.

Mallet says the students taking AP courses is a key part of that.

“We do believe that computer education and technology education is a fundamental literacy — just like math, reading and writing — so we make sure that our students have a computer science class, starting in sixth grade, because it's important. Every industry is a tech industry,” she says.

Mallet says the skills students are learning now could be beneficial to them in any career and potentially move them up in the applicant pool.

“And so, if we really want our students to have those choices that I'm talking about knowing that every industry is going to require a technology competency. We have to do our job to make sure our students are able to take on that workforce,” she says.

As far as computer science careers go, students would be taking on a workforce where just 9.1% of Black people hold computer and math related jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A 2016 Google report that explored the underrepresentation of girls, and Black and Hispanic students in computer science says women and certain racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in learning computer science and obtaining computer science degrees, which leads to an underrepresentation in computer science careers.

The study found that Black students are less likely than white students to have classes dedicated to computer science at the school they attend, and that female students are less likely than male students to be aware of computer science learning opportunities on the internet and in their community.

“I think it is important for educators who have that insight to make sure that we’re setting students up for things that they don’t even know is yet to come,” says Mallet.

Meanwhile, sophomores Emijah McDonald and Justina Austin say they don’t exactly know where computer science will fit in in their careers just yet — incorporating those skills isn’t necessarily the goal for them.

But they are ready for this exam. Emijah thinks it’s pretty cool to be one of the 100 students taking it.

“It’s so weird being one of the only 100 in this district doing this type of AP class and I guess that makes us kind of special,” says Emijah.

Justina says she thinks people will be talking about it for a long time. “‘Oh, these students were in high school and they passed their AP computer science class.’ I just feel like it’s gon’ be something special to talk about, like, something exciting,” says Justina.

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Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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