Program Nurtures Tech Genius Among Oakland's Teens

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By Aarti Shahani and Monica Lam
Video by Jeremy Raff

George Hofstetter worked to build an app for black private school students.

Languages like Python, Java and C++ are the backbone of the Internet economy, but they're not part of the school curriculum. While educators and lawmakers in California debate whether programming belongs in the classroom, a handful of startups and investors in Oakland have decided it's time for local teenagers to code.

Hacking the Hackathon

For the nonprofit Hidden Genius Project, the goal is to see the diversity of the East Bay eventually reflected in the high-tech sector.

High school sophomore Johnnel White takes a train, a bus and a long walk to get from his home in south Vallejo to coding classes at Hidden Genius’ downtown Oakland location.


“I wanted to change my life instead of being in a ghetto every day, growing up around people smoking and doing drugs,” White says.

A few weeks ago, White had a chance to test his growing knowledge during a hackathon for “Black Achievement.” Teams of teenagers and adult mentors spent the weekend at a local incubator in Oakland, hacking away at apps to deal with their own everyday problems -- from what to eat to whether to show up to school.

White's team is building a fitness app with a cartoon bird that gets thinner the more the user exercises. His parents are not here and, he says, he had to hustle them to get the train fare.

Imani Saint-Jean is one of several moms in the room. She isn't just giving moral support. She realizes she needs coding skills herself to survive in the job market, so when she enrolled her teenage daughter in another coding program, Black Girls Code, she started doing the take-home quizzes, too.

“Most of the applications or software for coding were really technical and hard to decode for an adult, and so I went straight to youth-targeted programs,” Saint-Jean says.

At the end of the weekend, each team pitches their ideas for new software and mobile apps to a panel of judges and a community audience.

White takes the mic and demonstrates a prototype of his team’s fitness app, with sample videos of himself and his teammates doing jumping jacks and other exercises.

Another team wants to build a social networking app for black private school students. San Leandro eighth-grader George Hofstetter says he got the idea from his own experience as one of the few black students at a private middle school.

“It’s predominantly white,” Hofstetter says. “There’s not as many African Americans in private schools as there are in public schools.”

Johnnel White pitches his app to a panel of judges and community audience. (Monica Lam/KQED)
Johnnel White pitches his app to a panel of judges and community audience. (Monica Lam/KQED)

Oakland’s Startup Scene

Oakland is home to a handful of Internet companies like the music-streaming site Pandora. Organizers of this hackathon want the emerging startup scene to be full of homegrown talent.

Kalimah Priforce -- who describes himself as a "hackademic" -- is a tech entrepreneur who started in a very different place. He grew up in foster care and, while he found a way out, his little brother did not.

“He stayed in the group home system until he was 18 and then he aged out and he was killed a couple of months later,” Priforce recalls. “So that was when I decided to focus on becoming an educator."

Black and Latino kids spend plenty of time using technology, but Priforce wants to see the consumers become the producers -- and make high-tech products that respond to real-life needs. He imagines a simple app to help women who may be getting harassed on the streets.

"With one swipe you can notify everyone who you love that's on a prearranged list,” Priforce imagines. “And it sends an SMS to them and lets them know where you're at and that you feel unsafe."

Hackathon funder Mitch Kapor is investing in Oakland the way other venture capitalists are investing in incubators abroad. His foundation has put over $1 million into local startups this last year alone.

“I’ve always been looking around corners,” Kapor says. His friends on Sand Hill Road might not get it yet, but Kapor says the East Bay is full of untapped potential and he’ll be the first to tap it.

“When I got started in personal computers in 1978, nobody took them seriously, and when I started looking at investing in Internet companies in 1993, nobody took it seriously,” says Kapor. “So this really isn’t any different.”

The panel of judges listens as each hackathon group presents their idea. (Monica Lam/KQED)
The panel of judges listens as each hackathon group presents their idea. (Monica Lam/KQED)

Work Behind the Scenes

In February, President Barack Obama announced a new initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper” to help young men of color succeed in school and professionally. But that work takes a lot more than a weekend of intensive -- albeit exciting -- engagement.

The Hidden Genius project is tasked with creating an ongoing culture of learning. The kids who are accepted by the program must commit to a summer-long intensive course in coding and twice-weekly classes throughout the school year. White and the other teens who come here bring their other homework -- and their other challenges.

One evening Hidden Genius student Bryon Muccular turned to his instructor, Kurt Collins, for help with Spanish. The Salesian High sophomore saw his grade drop during the semester, so he confided in his mentor, “I don't usually ask for help but see -- you know how to speak Spanish, right? I've heard you speak Spanish.”

“I'm not going to be a good Spanish tutor for you,” Collins tells him, but says he’ll help find another tutor. “I know somebody better, all right?”

In this room, learning a computer language is the beginning -- not the end -- of education.


A version of this story originally appeared on KQED NEWSROOM, a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.