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Youth Code Now

Through WCC Education Fund, Youth Code Now triples number of Black and Latino students learning STEM

on November 1, 2022

School days were difficult for Susana Romero, who was 11 when her family left El Salvador and settled in Richmond. She had a hard time with math and her parents, who did not speak English or  finish school, couldn’t help her. 

Things changed academically when Romero was introduced to computer science in high school. She pursued that interest after graduation earning a certificate in information technology support. Now she is an instructor with Youth Code Now in Richmond, teaching STEM programs to children who face the same challenges she once faced. 

“It is something that I wish I had when I was in school, and it is something that I did not have when I was in school,” Romero said.

With financial support from the West Contra Costa Public Education Fund, YCN has brought Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, after-school programs, as well as dance, music and art classes to 540 children in 16 Richmond pre-school, elementary, middle and high schools this year. The program has more than tripled since last year, when it benefitted 170 students in eight schools. 

Youth Code Now
Youth Code Now instructor Susana Romero leads an art class at Stege Elementary School for Ivy Olieo,7, and Mazzie Filiafa, 6. (Najim Rahim)

“If we can make a change for one, we change the world,” said Mebret Hagos, who co-founded YCN seven years ago with a group of professionals who grew up in Richmond. The program focuses on low-income, Black and Latino students and the instructors are from the same background, Hagos said.

Black and Hispanic people are underrepresented in STEM fields, which include science, computer science, engineering, math, architecture and health care jobs. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data from 2017 to 2019, Black workers held 9% of STEM jobs and Hispanic workers held 8%. In 2018, Black students earned 7% of  STEM bachelor’s degrees and Hispanic students earned 12%, the analysis found. 

Programs such as YCN’s intend to increase those percentages. Hagos said the results are promising, as nearly all students in the program improve at math, successfully complete science experiments and know how to create games and animation. 

“We have proven that if kids have opportunities, they are capable and smart,” Hagos said. “They just need the opportunities to continue to grow and enjoy the learning.” 

Dionni Jules, a third grader  at Stege Elementary School in Richmond has been in the program for two years. At age 8, she wants to become a scientist when she grows up. 

“Last year, it was a science club for girls. We did crazy experiments,” she said, explaining one in particular.

“I was smashing a flower. And then there was a type of liquid inside of it. And I was pushing up a flower and it turned into the paint,” she recalled. 

Youth Code Now
Third grader Dionni Jules enjoys a Youth Code Now art class at Stege Elementary School in Richmond. (Najim Rahim)

The Education Fund has supported the STEM program since it started. YCN is among five fiscal projects the Ed Fund currently supports to promote STEM, literacy, access to college, and social and emotional awareness among students. Through donations, the Ed Fund raised $1.8 million to benefit such programs, and to provide teachers with classroom grants and students with scholarships. Robert Bunce, the fund’s interim executive director, said the Ed Fund is on track to raise more than $2 million this school year. Ultimately, the fund’s goal is to bring educational equity to students in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, creating pathways to college and to successful careers. 

No one more than Romero understands the importance of bridging the equity gap in STEM. She said it’s rewarding to share her programming, game-development and website-building skills with students who remind her of herself. 

“This is helpful, because we reinforce a lot of things that they’re lacking during school,”  Romero said. “If they don’t have this hope right now, maybe they would spend their whole life without knowing.”

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