Automation destroys low-skill jobs and creates new, high-skill jobs simultaneously, changing America’s job mix as it goes. Those who obtain new skills can end up earning more, but those who don’t can end up earning substantially less – or falling out of the workforce entirely. If we don’t act, automation will increase the gap between rich and poor, skilled and unskilled.

One solution? Fix our high schools. As jobs grow more technology-intensive, today’s high school students must become more proficient in science, engineering, and math. Tenacity, teamwork, and an appreciation for “lifelong learning” are also critical. Today’s high school students will need to retrain throughout their careers, and they are likely to hold more than a dozen jobs by the time they’re 50.

The challenge is greater for low-income and minority students. African-American and Hispanic students are twice as likely to drop out of high school as white students, and students from affluent families are seven times more likely to earn a four-year degree than students from poor families. The answer for many of these students? Four years of computer science, internships with local businesses, robotics clubs, “makers spaces” – and dedicated teachers who understand what the “future of work” offers their graduates.

At Washington Leadership Academy (WLA), students take the standard four years of English, math, and social studies. They also take four years of computer science, which is included in WLA’s core curriculum.

Founded just four years ago, WLA is a public charter high school serving students from some of the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Seven out of ten WLA students are economically disadvantaged. One in four WLA students has special needs. WLA’s mission is to educate students to be college- and career-ready by placing a heavy emphasis on technical skills – like computer science.

“We find that not only are our students ready for [coding], but they really thrive,” said Natalie Gould, co-founder and COO of WLA. As schools across the U.S. struggle to keep students engaged, WLA has proven that computer science – and exposure to its uses in the real world – attracts and holds them.

WLA’s curriculum prepares 100% of WLA’s students to take the AP Computer Science Principles exam during their sophomore year. By making computer science more accessible, WLA also makes it more equitable: 90% of African American students and one-third of women that pass the AP exam in D.C. come from WLA.

To put this in context, WLA serves about 400 students, or less than half of one percent of DC’s ~18,000 high school students. A school representing less than half a percent of the city’s students is responsible for 32% of its students passing AP Computer Science Principles.

“We teach computer science as a language of power,” Gould said. “[Our] students deserve to be at the forefront of a system of power and I think computer science is what will give it to them. This is where they can get ahead of many of their more privileged peers.”

In addition to focusing on computer science, WLA operates a “maker space” on campus that lets students design and produce their own products. Students sell their products to their peers and train one another on how to use the equipment. Teachers also have access to the maker space to incorporate more hands-on and project-based elements into their daily lessons.

WLA also runs a robust internship program. During their junior year, students intern at a non-profit or governmental office every Friday afternoon. “What does it take to thrive in the world? Well, you need practice being in the world. And so few schools actually do that,” said Gould. Internships also teach students ‘soft skills’ like teamwork, self-reliance, and the ability to adapt.

WLA’s approach is scalable. In fact, as WLA refines its computer science curriculum, it will be sharing it as open-source materials so other schools can use it. WLA envisions that within five years, any high school that wants to incorporate computer science into its program will be able to. “Many schools think there just isn’t enough time for all kids to learn CS at any point during their high school career, particularly high-need or low-income students. We want to change that mindset and lower the barrier to entry. Any high school can offer CS programming if you get creative enough, and we plan to make the materials available so schools can make it happen.”


Listen to the whole conversation between Business Forward’s Ed Meier and WLA co-founder Natalie Gould on the Business Forward podcast. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and Google Play: