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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Connecting working-class kids to high-tech futures

Carlos Huerta, an engineering student at Downtown College Prep Alum Rock High, works on wheels for a “drop-and-dash” robot for the Silicon Valley Tech Challenge. Photo: Joanne Jacobs

Silicon Valley imports technical talent from around the country and around the world, but the kids who grow up in the Valley’s working-class neighborhoods, “the children of groundskeepers, janitors, cooks and construction workers,” rarely get a shot at high-paying, high-tech jobs,” I write on Mind/Shift. (The story also is on the Hechinger Report.)

Preparing working-class students to take advanced math and science classes isn’t enough. I write about programs that expose first-generation-to-college students — mostly from Latino immigrant families — to high-tech opportunities.

“Half our kids don’t know what’s out there or what it means to be an engineer,” said Chris Funk, superintendent of the East Side Union High School District, which serves San Jose’s majority Latino and Vietnamese immigrant neighborhoods. “They drive past the tech buildings, but they don’t know what’s going on inside.”

East Side, other districts and charter schools are working with the nonprofit Genesys Works to place 12th-graders in nine-month internships at high-tech and other companies. During the summer before senior year, Genesys Works trains them in technical and “soft skills.” Once school starts, students spend their mornings in class and their afternoons at work, averaging 20 hours a week at minimum wage or above. Nearly all enroll in college.

At San Jose’s Downtown College Prep Alum Rock High, which primarily enrolls students from Mexican immigrant families, 55 percent of students now take a computer science or engineering course.

Kateryn Raymundo, who interned at SalesForce, a cloud-computing company, as a 12th-grader, is finishing a marketing degree at San Francisco state while working full-time as a data analyst at SalesForce. Photo: Pedro Raymundo

This year, teams of students created an experiment that was run on the International Space Station via Quest for Space, designed a “tiny house” for the homeless, competed in robotics, rocketry and engineering competitions and worked with students in China to design an electricity-free air-cooling and filtering system, which they presented at a UNESCO conference. In a BUILD entrepreneurship class, students develop product ideas and pitch them to Silicon Valley professionals.

Once they try engineering, “our students totally get it,” says Katie Zazueta, community engagement director for Downtown College Prep, which runs two high schools and two middle schools. As immigrants, “they come from a culture of tinkering, building, making things work.”

Some students have worked in research labs at Stanford, Berkeley and other universities over the summer. The charter network is trying to get students into a variety of summer internships and enrichment programs. For young people who’ve grown up in heavily Latino neighborhoods and gone to heavily Latino schools, “it’s beneficial to realize that not everybody looks like them and to have that experience before they go to college,” says Kelly Neal, DCP’s partnership manager.

I also got to interview Patricia Villegas, a graduate of DCP’s first class, who recruits contract workers for Google. I met her when she was a bubbly sophomore on the Mock Trial and girls’ basketball team. She’s in my book, Our School. Now she’s a confident, articulate adult who’s found her calling. “I get people jobs,” she said. “Everybody needs a job.”

It was wonderful to meet so many smart, engaged young people. Fernando Lopez, a 2018 graduate, spent last summer working at a civil engineering company, building a network of contacts. A leader of the “tiny house” team, he plans to earn a civil engineering degree, with a credential in Building Information Modeling,  at University of California Irvine.

“In Engineering Design and Development, we think of a problem and find a solution,” he told me. “Working in construction with my dad, I saw a lot of people have back problems because they have to work in awkward positions.” He redesigned a tool called an angle grinder extension to prevent back injuries. His father will try it and give him feedback.

I asked if he would try to manufacture the tool, if it works. “I’m thinking of getting a patent,” said Fernando. It’s Silicon Valley.

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