School Builds on Cornell Tech Relationship to Become Computer Science Leader

January 6, 2018

[SAVING THE MIDDLE SCHOOL: This is part a series of articles about the Island’s middle school.]


While IS 217 cannot offer a specialized program or many of the extracurriculars of a larger school, it does have an ace in the hole that few other schools can boast of: a relationship with the Island’s Cornell Tech graduate school. 


Cornell Tech’s work with IS 217, including helping the school embed computer science into every grade, could arguably be more valuable than what is happening at the most desirable District 2 school. 


At Cornell Tech’s October Let’s Code Roosevelt Island event, middle school students learned to use Javascript to edit news videos. 


Levitt says that PS/IS 217 is already a fundamentally different school than it was at the beginning of their relationship a few years ago. “They went from being a lovely school to being a leader in NYC public education,” says Levitt about the progress she and the administration of PS/IS 217 have made. The goal, she says, is to create students with “computational agency,” an ability to solve problems, to create on their own, and a sense of initiative. 


To accomplish this goal, Cornell Tech created a teacher-in-residence program – the only one in the City. With this model, teachers get a higher level of support. They have a professor to plan with and learn from, who observes them in the classroom and gives them feedback. Levitt’s hope is that this approach will institutionalize computer science in the classroom. The teacher-in-residence program supplements the administration’s own push to adopt computer science at every grade level. 


“[Principal] Mandana Beckman is a fierce advocate for her kids,” says Levitt. “And they really care about making great things happen in classrooms. When Meg Ray [Cornell Tech’s teacher-in-residence] and I sit down with her, she never says, ‘You’re taking too much time.’ She says, ‘Can we put more computer science in the middle school? Can we go deeper?’ Every teacher in the building is expected to teach computer science. That’s big. It’s unprecedented.” 


Levitt describes PS/IS 217 as Cornell Tech’s learning lab. Although the relationship between the two schools may evolve over time, she says it’s secure. “We will always be in the middle school at 217 in a really robust way. I hope that’s a draw for families. Parents may assume if [this level of computer science programming] is at 217, it’s everywhere. But that is not the case.” 


The work being done at PS/IS 217 far exceeds what the NYC Department of Education (DOE) has mandated as part of its Computer Science for All (CS4All), the 10-year initiative to integrate computer science education into 100 percent of the city’s public schools. Levitt sits on the CS4All advisory board and says that “we are a learning partner with the DOE. We are in a feedback loop with DOE about what we are learning all the time.” 


CS4All requires every student to have one meaningful unit of computer science in middle school. According to principal Beckman, at PS/IS 217 students will eventually have four project-based computer science units per year, one in each subject for every year of middle school. 


Levitt hopes to see the fruits of that labor in the coming years. “As we build the program, we add depth and complexity year by year. We will start to reap the promise of the middle school fairly soon. Next year’s sixth graders will have had two full years of computer science in fourth and fifth grade. The number of kids with three years of this level of computer science level is miniscule. If you stay at 217, you get that.”


Additionally, the fact that IS 217 isn’t a selective school means every student has access to computer science. “We will work with every student regardless of their test scores because we believe that every child should have computational agency,” she says. “Every kid who attends every grade at 217 will have it. And I don’t know how many schools can say that.”


But Levitt is clear that Cornell Tech isn’t doing it alone. “Principal Beckman’s commitment to computer science education is what really makes it a success there.” 

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