Chester High basketball players crack code for success, on and off the court

Chester High School girls basketball team manager, junior Kori Rochester (left) works with boys basketball players freshman Karell Watkins and sophomore Zahmir Carrill (right) during after school coding class.

On the basketball court, Chester High School has clearly cracked the code for success – with a record eight state championships for a boys’ varsity squad that’s produced NBA stars such as Jameer Nelson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Now, school leaders want hoopsters from the boys’ and girls’ squads at the Delaware County high school to bring their winning attitude from the hardwood to a keyboard by launching a one-of-a-kind coding club to teach them high-tech skills – to expand their career options and convince their peers that developing software is cool.

“There’s a million jobs for this – not everyone is going to college,” said Michael Smith, a junior point guard and cocaptain of the Clippers. “They can get an early start [on coding] and it gives you a lot of opportunities.” While working on his tablet for an hour before basketball practice three days a week, Smith was hoping to create his own app.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Chester High School’s athletic director and the girls’ and boys’ basketball coaches double as instructors during an after-school coding class with their players. The school district is thinking that the popular school leaders will influence others to want to learn the trendy skill. They plan to expand the program to baseball and other spring sports.

Players who can make both game-winning baskets and smartphone apps is the dream of Chester Upland School District Superintendent Juan Baughn, who came up with the idea to work with Apple to start a high school coding club to teach basketball players the basics of writing computer software code.

The long-term plan, according to Baughn, who earlier in his career coached the boys’ team, is to expand the program to other athletic teams at Chester and eventually to the wider student body. Coaches agree that kids look up to the school’s basketballers as role models, even after the boys’ squad was eliminated from the state’s PIAA tournament in the second round this month.

If the school can get its star athletes to excel at coding, said girls’ varsity coach Harry Burney, “then everyone else will follow suit because of their popularity. If they see them doing it, they’ll do it.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Girls’ basketball coach Harry Burney works with his players during coding class. Clockwise from the coach are freshman Camryn Robinson, sophomore Ceyrah Raison-Williams, senior Sakinah Brice, freshman Nahtonya Taylor, and sophomore Iesha Williams.

As he spoke, about 20 players from both teams were sitting around classroom tables, working on Apple iPads paid for with a $17,000 state Ready to Learn grant, which focuses on technology. With the help of their coaches, they were learning basic coding skills — moving a cartoon character along a maze — proceeding at their own pace.

Sakinah Brice, a 17-year-old guard and team captain, said the coding skills should help her ambitions to study criminal science or psychology when she heads off to college. “It’s kind of easy for me,” she said.

Baughn stressed that coding skills could be a way for kids from the 3,500-student Chester Upland School District – one of the most economically disadvantaged districts in Pennsylvania, where 85 percent of students are poor and money problems have forced the public schools into state receivership – to land well-paying jobs that might not require a college degree.

The district didn’t supply numbers of students who go on to higher education, but according to state data, nearly half of its students do not graduate from high school. Adding to the community’s woes, the unemployment rate is 9 percent, the second highest in the state.

“There are a lot of opportunities in the coding arena,” said athletic director Andre Moore. “They’re actually looking for students right out of high school…We want our students to go to college… but if not, they can get a job doing this.”

Although there are few good statistics, tech companies don’t always require a bachelor’s degree; new ventures like the national nonprofit TechHire aim to place workers in an increasingly skills-based economy, where experts believe the ability to demonstrate a sought-after talent such as coding will trump traditional yardsticks like degree or resumé.

Chester Upland officials say they believe local businesses are looking to hire skilled software developers at above-average salaries, which would be a boon to poor and working-class youth in Chester.  “For every five jobs there are in coding, two go unfilled,” Baughn said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for our young people.”

Baughn explained that the reason for the novel idea of linking the coding club to the basketball program was in part due to limited resources. “Nobody was doing it. … You have to start somewhere,” he said. In addition to the players’ ability to influence other kids, the superintendent said coding can better connect the athletes with the growing world of sports analytics, and thus use technology to improve their game.

The program started in early February when Baughn and the district’s athletic coaches were trained by Apple consultants. As spring sports begin, the basketball players are preparing to hand over the iPads – equipped with Apple’s Everyone Can Code platform – to athletes from other sports who will also practice coding before they hit the fields. In the coming months, Chester Upland is hoping to expand the program with more iPads, and to dispatch some of the athletes to other schools to mentor younger kids.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Athletic director Andre Moore checks with senior basketball player Kylair Blackston in class.

In addition, Suk-Chung Yoon, a computer-science professor at nearby Widener University, said he’s spoken with Baughn about bringing in kids from the coding club next fall for additional training, including more advanced programming. “If they come to campus,” Yoon added, “we’ll be able to expose them to college life and they’ll see possible role models.”

And as a former coach, Baughn said he hopes the coding club can dispel some myths about his star players. “We have some sharp students who are athletes,” he said. Indeed, several of the students in the coding class said their experience in other classes – including at Chester Upland’s STEM Academy at Showalter program – had prepared them for the coding club.

Kylair Blackston, 18, a center on the team, said he’d already done some coding as a freshman – when he also joined a school robotics team – and is aiming to study biochemistry or physical chemistry. He said what he’s learning in the coding club will help him in college, and he’s optimistic the concept will catch on at Chester.

“The basketball team is looked at as leaders,” Blackston said. “So if the basketball team is doing it, it might catch on and kids will do STEM and robotics.”

Other players noted the coding club also gives students one more thing to do in a city where kids and their parents worry about the high crime rate.

“It keeps us off the streets and gives us opportunities, said Ceyrah Williams, a 15-year-old sophomore shooting guard on the girls’ team.

Karell Watkins, a 16-year-old freshman center on the boys’ team, said he’s having fun with the program and agreed the coding club is a good way to keep kids out of trouble. “It’s interesting,” he said. “I was not interested in tech, but this is bringing me closer to it.”