How Black STEM Students Are Keeping Philadelphia’s School Technology In Working Order, One Computer At a Time

Jannie Delucca

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West Philadelphia High School responded to the pandemic like many other school districts across the country by sending its nearly 198,000 students home to learn on school-issued Chromebooks.

Naturally, the technology endured wear and tear, and the district tapped one of its three computer systems networking programs to get the devices back in working order.

Nah’ree Gross, 18, is a junior at West Philadelphia High School and is a student in the program. Gross says he’s always had a knack for tech.

“I grew up loving technology in general, video games, Xbox and computers and stuff so it just came naturally to me,” Gross said.

Sophomore Nyeem Shubert, 16, is also in the program, and he says his interest in tech grew over time as he grew to learn more about the roles of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“I didn’t know what was in the program then they brought Chromebook repair to my mind then I started repairing Chromebooks, and I started to like it,” Shubert said.

The computer systems networking program is part of the school’s career technical education (CTE) that’s designed to get students comfortable with computers and other technology.

The district has utilized the student’s developing skill sets as an in-house technology repair shop, which helps with hands-on experience, although students are not paid for their work done in class. The class instructor Marie Wilkins-Walker told Technical.ly, “The class services computers within its school system, but also computers throughout the district.”

A district spokeswoman says since the pandemic started, its district-wide repair centers have fixed more than 30,000 devices each school year, and West Philadelphia High School is repairing an additional 60 Chromebook devices per week. Currently, the school dedicates 180- 270 minutes a week of class time repairing Chromebooks.

“They’re going to try to bring in more technology to show us how to fix phones and stuff like that and help us get a job doing that until we enter the next level once we get out of high school,” Shubert said.

The computer systems networking program is part of a larger effort by the Philadelphia School District to introduce its students to science, technology, engineering, and math related work and in this case, computer repair, and the many job opportunities that comes with it.

The district is predominantly Black and brown, with 52 percent of the student population Black and 22 percent Hispanic or Latino.

Once students finish high school, the Urban Technology Project is the next phase in the pipeline. “Our apprenticeship offers on the job hands on experience, IT certifications and mentorship,” said Shana Savage, executive director of the Urban Technology Project, which is a paid apprenticeship program that serves as an alternative pathway to college.

“Now employers are not just looking at the traditional pipeline universities, but they’re looking at community colleges, and bootcamps and apprenticeships and trainings to one get more diverse talent but to meet their quota to make their businesses run,” Savage said.

Savage says Black and brown students often face structural barriers, which include lacking adequate science and math instruction at an early age, to minimal exposure to technology as compared against white youth.

On the other end of the spectrum, fewer Black people are part of the STEM career field, a 2019 Pew Research study found, only 9 percent of Black people make up the STEM career fields. Savage says part of their mission is to fill the gap those barriers create.

“Our primary mission of UTP is so that our apprentices who are Black and brown and women who are underrepresented in the tech field – our program is designed to help them overcome those barriers through hands on experience, certifications and mentorship; the barrier is a college degree or experience,” Savage said.

Dimair Jones is a tangible example of what success looks like for students participating in career and technical education program. He is a graduate of the Urban Technology Program and now works as a technical support specialist for the school district.

“When I first started out in tech, I didn’t like or understand technology and in a way I was afraid to even get my hands on it so I was going into it blind as well, but once I started and started to see the different avenues that I can go to by working in technology it kind of opened my mind up to what I can be doing,” Jones said of his pathway into STEM.

The Urban Technology Project is made up of the Digital Service Fellows AmeriCorps Program and the Computer Support Specialists Information Technology Apprenticeship Program. Students in the program complete over 5,100 hours of hands-on work experience and earn 1 to 3 industry certifications.

Savage says students who complete the CTE program at the high school level and the Urban Technology Project post-graduation often have a job waiting on them after their apprenticeship is complete. “Most of our graduates, they graduate and are able to get entry-level positions in tech roles and most of their salaries range from fifty, fifty-five thousand dollars a year,” Savage said.

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