Catalysts of Change

URBAN TxT students

Teen Boys Learn Coding in South Los Angeles

Years after graduating, I was asked to return to my high school, Jordan High School in Watts, California, to encourage students to pursue higher education and technology careers. By this time I had graduated from Cal Poly Pomona and was a successful social entrepreneur. During my discussion I learned that Jordan’s technology program had not changed in the 10 years since I had been a student there. The only option available to students interested in technology was the same glorified typing course that I had taken as a teenager.

I decided to found a nonprofit called URBAN Teens eXploring Technology (URBAN TxT). The mission of URBAN TxT is to encourage urban teen males to become catalysts of change in their communities. Our focus is on developing teens from South Los Angeles and Watts into a new generation of community and technology leaders.

URBAN TxT uses coding as a tool for teens to learn entrepreneurship, leadership, and public speaking, while developing strong work ethics. The program is geared toward seventh to 11th graders, and teaches HTML5, CSS, Javascript, Photoshop, PHP, public speaking, and entrepreneurial skills. Though the program doesn’t have a permanent home, our Summer Programming Academy is hosted by the University of Southern California, which also donates laptops and software. Now in its third year, the program has served more than 100 students.

I’ve seen that coding is a tool to give male teens the hope and confidence to pave their own paths to success. There’s a hunger to learn web and app development in the inner city. I believe that coding is the new equalizer in the 21st century. With programming skills, youth in low-income communities will be able to compete for jobs or create their own jobs in the future.

URBAN TxT operates on a shoestring budget of about $10,000 per year from an Edison International grant. Funding has been our biggest challenge. The reality is that we’re not sure if we can continue the program if we don’t have additional funding.

Still, results are promising. One hundred percent of graduating seniors who go through our program end up in four-year universities. More and more students are trying to get involved. In 2012, 42 teens applied and 25 were accepted. In 2013, 150 students applied for 30 spots.

Jesus Vargas, 17, had a 2.8 GPA before entering URBAN TxT. Now he has a 3.8. “It opened up my eyes to entrepreneurship,” Vargas said. “Suddenly, everything seems possible.”

Marco Solis is a program alumnus and now a second year student at Stanford University, where he is studying mechanical engineering. “I never thought I could enroll in a school like Stanford. Without Oscar encouraging me to participate in URBAN TxT, I don’t think I’d be here,” said Solis.

We’ve received attention from prominent tech companies and education advocates. Eric Schmidt, executive chair of Google, addressed an URBAN TxT student, saying,“Continue doing what you are doing. We need a million more like you.” Chelsea Clinton recently tweeted about our program to her nearly 300,000 followers.

Ultimately, I believe that our students, most of whom have never left South Los Angeles, are unpolished gems. Their challenging upbringings foster a spirit of innovation, determination, and maturity. I’ve seen that these teens don’t give up. That’s part of the culture here. The attitude is: “I’m going to make it, no matter what my challenges are.”

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