On a recent Tuesday morning in November, Claire Shorall bounced around her classroom between students, all of whom were minorities underrepresented in the tech industry. When they called out, “Shorall! I need help!” she would instantly appear by their side to answer questions or offer guidance as they worked on making data infographics.
Later that day, Shorall shifted her focus to her main role as the manager of computer science in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). At the district’s central office downtown, she worked on plans to incorporate computer science classes into Oakland’s middle and elementary schools.
“Think of the possibilities for students seeing computer science in 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th grade,” explained Shorall. “We don’t need everybody to be a software engineer but we do need every student to be able to think critically and procedurally, write an algorithm, and debug errors.”
From that point, students can use those skills in graphic art, web design, robotics, or subjects that seems entirely unrelated to technology and tie it in, she said.
This position, the first of its kind, was created in the summer of 2015 to help narrow the gender and diversity gap in the technology industry by better preparing students in STEM.
District officials had seen how tech companies were moving into the city and wanted to make sure that its students could qualify for jobs.
“If we believe that school is a place for opportunity for students, then we fundamentally have to give students an education that allows them to enter the tech sector,” Shorall said.
Because the position is new, it allows her to address various aspects of computer science education, including teacher training, curriculum curation, and class scheduling. She also has the authority to woo technology companies and convince them to sponsor the district’s programs.
Shorall also carves out time, so she can continue to teach an AP class in computer science principles at Castlemont High School, where she started her career as a teacher.
“Teaching is the most challenging and dynamic work I can ever be a part of–that’s why I still continue to teach one course,” said Shorall. “It keeps me on my A-game.”
Shorall never thought she’d be working in education. The petite, Pittsburgh native intended to go to medical school after graduating from Rice University with a degree in biochemistry. But in her senior year of college she attended a rally for then-Senator Barack Obama, who was running for president. At the event, he called the audience to do something for their country.
“I applied for Teach for America, not really for the ‘Teach’ but for the ‘for America,’” explained Shorall with a laugh.
In the fall of 2008, she was placed at Castlemont High in East Oakland, where her eyes were opened to the challenges of teaching disadvantaged students in an under-resourced district.
After her two-year contract ended, Shorall decided to stay on to teach biology, calculus, and computer science full-time. Along the way, she noticed that she was the only teacher at Castlemont offering a computer science course.
Of the 16 high schools in the Oakland Unified School District, she found out that only Oakland Tech offered an AP computer science course. This motivated her to start thinking about how she could help expand and improve such programs across the district.
She paired district teachers with an organization called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS), which recruits volunteers from technology companies to teach computer science. She also encouraged students in other schools to talk to their principles about adding the subject to the curriculum.
But Shorall soon realized the limitations of trying to teach and manage at the same time.
In early 2015, she had a chance encounter with Devin Dillon, the district’s chief academic officer, who had started thinking about getting more serious about computer science education.
“It was sort of a perfect storm,” said Dillon. “Claire and I started meeting and she had some great ideas. We basically created the position for Claire.”
The meeting coincided with an announcement that semiconductor giant Intel would invest $5 million in a five-year grant to fund computer science education at McClymonds High School and Oakland Technical High School. The money also made it possible for OUSD to fund Shorall’s new position.
Since she began her new job in August 2015, Shorall’s team has restructured the class schedule in the high schools, so they can add extra periods to accommodate computer science. She has also helped set up middle schools with computer science teachers.
In that time period, the number of high school students taking a computer science class has risen to 2,800 from 700, and computer science coursework has been implemented in 12 of the 16 high schools and 14 of the 18 middle schools in the district, according to Shorall.
Still, one of her biggest on-going challenges is funding.
Shorall spends much of her time thinking about which schools should get computer science classes, how to train teachers, and how to add more instruction time in a school day. Yet, she also has to make sure she continues to get grants to keep her program afloat.
The money pays for technology, teacher training, and computer science curriculum development. Earlier this year, the district received a renewable annual $2.5 million grant from cloud-computing firm Salesforce aimed towards hiring more computer science teachers and professional development.
If either Intel or Salesforce pulled their support, Shorall would have to figure out another way to fund STEM programs and teacher positions. She said also she spends a lot of time making sure that her programs are in line with her sponsors’ visions.
Shorall’s other challenge is to make sure the programs are attracting interest from students of all backgrounds. Shorall is aware that she can’t fix every diversity problem in Silicon Valley, but she wants to remove obstacles for young, minority women. She works particularly hard on this in her class at Castlemont High School.
Cynthia Herrera, a high school senior there, said Shorall challenges her to think differently. She said Shorall helps her with college applications, takes her students to hackathons and meets with students before and after school.
“Not many other teachers are like that,” said Herrera.
Shorall oversees over 60 schools in her role, but it’s a challenge she is ready for.
“I’m a builder. I like seeing things grow from the ground up,” said Shorall. “I fundamentally believe that if we empower students in Oakland, we will see a shift in technology that the world may or may not be ready for.”