STEP 2: Develop a Big Idea

Chris wondered how the city of Richmond compared to the surrounding counties. So he got back on the phone. First he called Hanover County, where Rebecca was a high school teacher.

At the time, Rebecca Dovi was already Virginia’s go-to resource on teaching computer science. She’d helped revise the state’s computer science standards. In the five years prior to 2010, she had trained 25 educators how to teach a very challenging AP class on the subject, including English teachers and even an agriculture teacher whose specialty was turf grass.

Over the years, Chris would hear these stories from Rebecca and they’d agree, “Isn’t that weird?” The training was a lot of extra work, and sometimes Rebecca would say, “I’m going to say no the next time.” And Chris would say, “No, you’re going to say yes because clearly something is happening here.”

Rebecca, in turn, had pushed Chris to cover the robotics competition. So when Chris called Hanover County as part of his reporting for that story, he figured he knew what the county’s answer would be. And sure enough, most Hanover schools offered from four to seven computer science, or CS, classes.

Next he called Chesterfield, which also had a great CS reputation. “And yeah,” he recalled, “they had computer science. But it was only available now and then, when there was enough student interest, as they put it.”

Then Chris called Henrico. He’d been the government beat reporter there when Steve Jobs delivered laptops for every student. Chris assumed they’d have the best CS program out there.

Henrico had one class. And it was at a specialty school inside a gated program. A child would have to make it into the specialty school, then apply to get into the program, and then apply to take the computer programming class, which could handle no more than 24 students. Not surprisingly, only 12 actually made it through all the obstacles into the class.

Compared to Henrico, Richmond Public Schools served about the same number of children, and they had James, the one and only kid pursuing computer programming on his own. In the big picture, there wasn’t much difference between one and 12, not out of student populations of more than 20,000 each. That meant, to Chris and Rebecca’s amazement, that the ratio between city and county was actually similar.

Plus, it turned out most of the teams at the robotics competition were more like James’s school than Henrico’s Mills Godwin with its 14 student programmers – most relied on adult mentors or easy drag-and-drop simulation language for their programming.

Back then in 2010, Chris thought to himself, “That indicates systemic need.” His reporting confirmed it: Nationwide, only about 10% of schools offered computer science education. For Chris and Rebecca Dovi, it was an eye-opening moment.

Around the same time, the grant that had paid for the teach-the-teacher training that Rebecca had been doing came to an end. That’s when a big idea lit them up.

“Hey,” Chris said, “we should start a nonprofit!”

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Nationwide, only about 10% of schools offered computer science education. For Chris and Rebecca Dovi, it was an eye-opening moment.

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