South Bend Code School Helps Get Underserved Kids on Career Path

A few years ago, Alexandra Liggins was a student at Notre Dame studying English and taking pre-med courses. When she began tutoring local high school students in South Bend, IN, she was disheartened by the number of kids who believed that if they weren’t on the path to college, they didn’t have many future job prospects.

“I knew a lot of pressure was put on them,” Liggins recalls. “I was only a few years older than them and I didn’t have it figured out.” Coding struck her as an excellent way for her students to gain skills that would enable them to enter the workforce without a college degree.

So, Liggins taught herself how to code and began running a program out of a local community center. “We started with 19 students with zero coding skills who went on to build 23 apps,” she says. “The mayor and tech professionals came and visited the class, and at the end, we took them on a trip to Chicago to visit the Google office so they could see what a career might look like if they continued to learn coding.”

Liggins describes that first class as an “amazing experience,” and says that she was soon fielding more than a dozen inquiries from entities interested in hosting a similar program. To meet the demand, she and two co-founders decided to open the South Bend Code School in 2015.

The school has grown since then, with an outpost now open in Fort Wayne and a third school expected in Goshen early next year. So far, more than 200 students—47 percent of them women and 54 percent minorities underrepresented in tech—have completed the school’s formal program. More than 600 people have been exposed to coding through the school’s outreach, Liggins says.

The for-profit school offers classes divided into three age groups: 7-9, 10-12, and 13-18. Students can learn a variety of coding languages, including HTML, CSS, and Javascript. The students build websites, a personal bio page, and are encouraged to develop apps that help solve problems in their communities, whether big or small. One student built a pet finder app after his sister’s cat went missing.

“The students that finish the program are internship-ready,” Liggins says. “A lot of the students are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, so having a tangible skillset they can use to immediately get a job excites them. The coding languages we teach are also very approachable to people with no coding knowledge—you see it work on the first day, which is a huge confidence boost.”

Getting underrepresented kids prepared to pursue tech careers can be a challenge, but not because they’re not interested. As Liggins points out, the kids have grown up with technology and consider it the norm—they’re just as interested in creating the next Facebook as their suburban counterparts.

“It’s more about the stereotypes surrounding STEM,” she says. “A lot of kids think that if you’re not good at math, you can’t code. Often, they’re just not introduced to it in the right way. We give kids the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat of building something they enjoy, like an app, and then connect them to other areas of STEM from there. Every student is able to learn if you figure out the right approach.”

Liggins says the school partners with non-profits, tech companies, and educational organizations to offset the cost of tuition for those in need. The school is open to any student between the ages of 7 and 18 who can get to classes, even if they’re not in the immediate area. (For example, kids come from Niles, MI, about 30 minutes away, to attend classes in South Bend.) In the coming year, she plans ramp up outreach with free coding events for kids and adults alike as the school continues to expand.

Earlier this month, Liggins traveled to Detroit for the national Women of Color STEM conference, where she won an award for her work promoting education. The trip inspired her to start looking at Detroit as a possible future code school location opening as early as next summer.

“It was amazing to be on stage with women from places like NASA and IBM,” she says. “Women of color are creating so much change in STEM, and I had never been to an event like that. I felt very built up.”

Representation is crucial, she adds. She never considered a tech career because she didn’t see a whole lot of people who looked like her working in STEM fields. “It’s a blessing that I wound up here, because I wasn’t on this track at all,” she says.

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