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Coding Collaboration: PowerLab, Purchase College and tech CEO bring computer course to Yonkers

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Seated around a table in shared workspace at The PowerLab offices in southwest Yonkers, three Yonkers high school students were at work on a recent afternoon at laptops. The students took part in coding lessons as Ray Wilcox, one of PowerLab’s co-founders, looked on.

One of the students, Prince Thompson, a junior at Yonkers High School, was at work creating a calculator through Python coding. Thompson is one of 12 students who started a pilot program in January that offers computer-programming classes through KodePal, a teaching software with local roots.

students prince thompson purchase college students program yonkers high school
Yonkers high schools students work on coding lessons at The PowerLab in Yonkers. From left: Ray Wilcox, co-founder of the PowerLab, works with students Prince Thompson and Robbi Jean Baptiste.

“What I like the most is learning new things and making new games,” Thompson said. “I made Rock, Paper, Scissors already.”

“I like that,” Wilcox added with a laugh. “You better talk that up.”

Thompson is part of a group of mostly sophomores and juniors in the Yonkers School District active in the coding program. The course is a collaboration among The PowerLab, Purchase College and Steven Fink, founder and owner of SummerTech and Coditum. Coditum provides coding courses to students ages 8 through 17 with teaching labs at Purchase College and in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Called KodePal, the program at PowerLab is an offshoot of Coditum and offers one-on-one coding instruction. The instruction comes from peer tutors at colleges throughout the country who have already graduated from the Coditum program.

The majority of the students were connected to the program through the Yonkers My Brother’s Keeper Challenge.

The My Brother’s Keeps Challenge is a public-private initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2014. The initiative aims to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color through mentorship and educational programming. The initiative is now part of the Obama Foundation and receives funding from New York state.

The Yonkers version, however, is separate from the Obama Foundation and does not receive state funding. A spokesperson said Yonkers My Brother’s Keeper is guided by the national My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, but not officially related.

By the end of the course at the PowerLab, each student will have learned the fundamentals necessary to pass an Advanced Placement Computer Science class.

The students come into the PowerLab offices typically one day per week, where they can spend about an hour with a mentor on Google Hangout to go over lessons. Courses focus on the Java and Python coding languages.

The PowerLab is a community incubator and co-working space started last fall in a 2,700-square-foot former medical space at 45 Ludlow St. The initiative is led by the Yonkers nonprofit Community Governance & Development Council with local marketing agency Defiant Media Group, of which Wilcox is a managing partner, overseeing the facility’s growth.

In December, Purchase College closed its Center for Community & Culture in Yonkers and moved all of its local programming to the PowerLab. The coding course represents the first educational program through that arrangement.

Purchase College provided the laptops and teachers necessary to run the coding program, while PowerLab offers a quiet space to work and receive mentorship.

“We try every other month to spend a Saturday together to just hang out, kick it with them, so they know that they can come to us with any questions,” Wilcox said. “And we could be their example of, ‘You know what, I like what those guys are doing, I want to be like them.’”

For Wilcox, the computer programming courses are a way for PowerLab to offer students in Yonkers a way to pick up vital skills that may not be available in school.

“I don’t want kids that look like me to be missing out on opportunity,” Wilcox said. “I’m from here, I want the kids from here to succeed.”

Wilcox said the students took quickly to the program, pointing to the nine students still active in the program out of 12 who started in January. He said that’s a retention rate that easily exceeded PowerLab’s initial expectations.

“It’s a tool for success, because they see the demand for it,” Wilcox said of learning computer programming. “But it’s also something they’re just interested in because a lot of kids are into gaming and creating.”

The program will end in May, Wilcox said, and then pick up with additional students next fall. While the pilot program started with a dozen students, he said future classes could reach 35 to 40 students. The goal, he said, is for the student who came through this round of the program to be able to teach the future students.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the relationship between the Yonkers My Brother’s Keeper and the national initiative. 

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