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Year's high school computer students up 12% in Arkansas

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Photographs by John Sykes Jr.

Mary Condit, director of the Arkansas Coding Academy, discusses the creation of a program introduced Wednesday at the Capitol that offers scholarships to the coding academy. Gov. Asa Hutchinson (left) gave an update on the state’s progress in coding classes.

More than 6,000 Arkansas high school students were enrolled in computer science classes this school year, a 12 percent increase over last year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Wednesday.

Hutchinson signed legislation in 2015, the year he took office, that required all public high schools to offer computer science. Since then, enrollment in those courses has increased 460 percent, Hutchinson said.

Arkansas was the first state in the nation to mandate computer science classes, according to Wired magazine.

Taking assessment of his computer science initiative three years out, Hutchinson highlighted the number of children from minority groups who are taking the classes -- 39 percent -- going so far as to say, "We've broken the racial barrier" through the program.

Asked what needs to be improved, Hutchinson said it is the comparatively low number of female students -- 26 percent -- in the computer science classrooms.

"We have work to do in Arkansas in increasing and encouraging our girls to take coding, and to make sure that they have that as a part of their future," Hutchinson said.

There are 225 teachers in the state trained to teach computer science, Hutchinson said, a 10 percent increase from last year.

A total of 6,184 high school students enrolled in science education courses during the fall semester, according to the governor's office. There are 143,487 students enrolled in grades 9-12 in Arkansas, according to the Arkansas Department of Education.

While it's too early for the initiative to have produced a pool of job-ready applicants for coding careers, Hutchinson said he believed companies are already starting to invest in the state with the expectation that those professionals will soon be graduating. He pointed to two tech companies, Metova and Apptegy, that have expanded in Arkansas.

"Wal-Mart early on located a significant part of their online business in Silicon Valley," Hutchinson said. "I hope that never happens again in the future."

Mary Condit, the director of the Arkansas Coding Academy at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, agreed with the governor, saying that a mix of the "talent pool" of job candidates, good universities and low real-estate costs makes Arkansas attractive to growing companies.

Condit was on hand for the second part of the governor's event Wednesday, the announcement of $6,000 each for four state employees to attend the coding academy.

The scholarships are being offered by the nonprofit ARCodeKids, which also will give scholarships to eight other adult Arkansans who don't work for the state.

According to Condit, graduates of the coding academy will be qualified for an "entry-level development position," which means they could do maintenance on existing software, work with a team to build products and services from the ground up, or do freelance work.

As part of the deal, the public employees who get paid leave to attend the course will have to continue working with the state for two years.

Hutchinson said a committee will be set up to select an employee from each of the state's four congressional districts to receive the scholarship. Anthony Owen, the state director of computer science education, and ARCodeKids will lead that committee.

Asked if there was a branch of state government in particular need of coding-trained staff, Hutchinson said it was a need throughout state government, though the larger agencies -- such as the Department of Human Services and the Department of Finance and Administration -- have the "most significant IT issues."

Metro on 12/07/2017



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