Newark Pushes Initiatives to Teach its Citizens How to Program, Give Families Access to Tech

Photo: Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka (R) cuts the ceremonial ribbon at Gadget Software with CEO Dan Crain, COO Maxwell Riggsbee and Allison Durham, executive manager of the Newark Housing Authority. Photo Credit: Courtesy Gadget Software
Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka (R) cuts the ceremonial ribbon at Gadget Software with CEO Dan Crain, COO Maxwell Riggsbee and Allison Durham, executive manager of the Newark Housing Authority. | Courtesy Gadget Software

On June 1, representatives from the City of Newark, along with the founders of Newark startup Gadget Software, held a community meeting at Gadget Software headquarters, just across from Military Park.

The event introduced a number of initiatives aimed at teaching children and adults in Newark how to code and other initiatives to provide families with access to the Internet.

Gadget Software moved to Newark from Boston less than a year ago, and it has become an integral part of the Newark community, said City of Newark CIO Seth Wainer. “Its software is what we are using to underpin all of our classes for youth and adults.”

Gadget Software builds and operates a mobile publishing platform that allows content publishers to easily recreate and publish, or to author their content as native mobile applications. The company is led by serial entrepreneur Dan Crain, CEO, and Maxwell Riggsbee, COO and chief product officer. Crain’s previous company, WhipTail Technologies (Whippany), was acquired by Cisco in October 2013 for $415 million.

The audience at the meeting was made up of community members, tech and entrepreneurship leaders, educators, Newark high school students, parents and many other members of the diverse Newark ecosystem. The event was a result of a partnership among Code for Newark, the Newark Housing Authority, the Newark Office of Information Technology and Gadget Software.

Wainer led the audience through a question-and-answer session on access to technology and to coding education in Newark. The City of Newark has pursued its pilot City of Code initiatives over the past year, providing several opportunities for Newark youngsters to learn programming as well as the soft skills around it—presentation, marketing and entrepreneurship. It even ran a robotics camp for kids.

Photo: Seth Wainer and Isaiah Little answer questions. Photo Credit: Courtesy Gadget Software
Seth Wainer and Isaiah Little answer questions. | Courtesy Gadget Software

In addition, over the past year, Wainer said, the mayor’s office has tried to increase free WiFi in indoor public spaces around the city, including Housing Authority properties and Centers of Hope. The Centers of Hope are revamped recreation spaces that provide mentorship, recreational activities and career counseling.

The city hasn’t done a good job of communicating the availability of WiFi and computers at these centers, said Wainer, who added that he was seeking community input on how to do this better. “I don’t think the residents in the vicinity of the clubhouses know that, if they need to do something on a computer, they can come to a clubhouse, jump on a computer and print it out.”

One audience member suggested that the city use the services of school community engagement specialists to help spread the word, and another suggested that churches could be another means to get this message to the larger community. Yet another said that using a local hip-hop radio station to send out the message would engage the youth.

Newark has also been distributing Sprint hot spots with 3 gigabytes of data/month for free for four years.  The device retails at about $100 per unit, but the up-front costs to the families that received a hot spot were covered, thanks to a grant from Prudential. “We have distributed 600 devices” to students with student IDs, said Wainer. “We can get to 1,000 with our current funding,” he added. “We would like to get to 5,000 devices and tap other funding streams, so we can have these everywhere.”

A parent in the audience noted that it was very important to have this kind of access at home, especially during the winter months, when Newark kids don’t stay late at school or libraries to work because it gets dark early.

During the meeting, Wainer and Isaiah Little, program manager at the City of Newark’s Office of Information Technology, told the group about “round two of what the City of Code will look like.”

In round two, said Little, Newark will be “shooting for nine classes overall. We want to triple what we had before. We saw 30 students last time, and we really want to get much closer to 100. Secondly, we want to incorporate adults. We got a lot of feedback from adults dropping off their kids saying ‘I would like this, too; this is an experience that would be helpful in my life as well.’”

Another audience member suggested that classes should include instruction to coders on how to provide programming services on a freelance basis.

Further down the road, the city plans to establish a physical base in the South Ward, which it will call the “Tech Academy,” where there will be robotics classes, coding classes and other activities.

Photo: A student and Vincent Randolph demonstrate what was taught during the programming classes. Photo Credit: Courtesy Gadget Software
A student and Vincent Randolph demonstrate what was taught during the programming classes. | Courtesy Gadget Software

Vincent Randoph, who taught the City of Code classes, spoke about the curriculum he developed “to introduce students to the power of creative development through Web design and creative therapy techniques.”

The goal was to expose the “students to opportunities to raise their skills and lower the barriers of entry by eliminating the fear and intimidation that's usually present by them thinking the work is too complicated and by not having people around who look like them.”

He said that when he taught the pilot classes, he took a “scaffolded learning” approach. “I'm really talking about entrepreneurship. We are teaching these kids coding, but they are really learning so many different things. The kids are given tasks that are crucial to entrepreneurship and skills to take the initiative, skills like marketing and project management. By the end of this course, students have learned that if they have an idea, there's a way they can prototype it and create a proof of concept.”

Photo: Panel at the community meeting at Gadget Software including L-R Dan Crain, Mayor Ras J. Baraka and two students who had learned coding through the city program. Photo Credit: Courtesy Gadget Software
Panel at the community meeting at Gadget Software including L-R Dan Crain, Mayor Ras J. Baraka and two students who had learned coding through the city program. | Courtesy Gadget Software

Mayor Ras J. Baraka was there for the Q & A session, moderated by Jerome Carter, a junior at People's Preparatory Charter School (Newark) who had been a Gadget Software intern. The panel included Baraka, Dan Crain, and two youngsters who had taken the initial courses offered by the city.

When asked where he would like to see the coding initiatives in five years, Baraka answered, “They should be all over the city. Every area in this town should have access to the digital world and access to the ability to code. It's a language like Spanish or French, except coding is used to design and build things. Everybody should have access to it.”

Asked what in Newark could help his business grow and thrive, Crain answered that bringing more tech companies into the city can only help. “Make it [Newark] a hub for businesses of this type. In history these were the financial centers of the U.S. Businesses gathered around certain areas. There's no reason this great city can't be that. There's nothing special about Silicon Valley. There's nothing special about these places where businesses have thrived.”

The student panelists, who had participated in the pilot program, had great things to say about it and about how the classes had opened their eyes to opportunities. One of them said that he wanted to be an orthodontist, but that he could see how building an app for his patients could help connect them to the practice and to each other.

The second student said, “In the future I want to be an entrepreneur, so I feel that learning how to build a website will help me in the future do something that I love. I'm pretty sure that the tech world is growing, so this is an excellent time to join this movement. I just feel like everyone in this room can help this teaching grow in Newark and other cities, so that everyone can enjoy this.”

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