Parry McCluer High School wants more girls to take tech classes

By Alison Murtagh

Concerned that only a third of students in technology courses are female, Buena Vista educators want to require all ninth graders at Parry McCluer High School to take a basic technology class. 

Last month, the Buena Vista school board approved making Information Technology Fundamentals a graduation requirement at the high school.  The requirement now needs approval by the state Department of Education. 

Information Technology Fundamentals is currently an elective offered to ninth graders at PMHS. Teachers decided it was time to make it mandatory after they noticed the struggle other students were having with computers, and the lack of female students in technology courses. 

PMHS offers a rich selection of technology courses for students in 10th through 12th grades. These include “Introduction to Computer Applications and Concepts,” “Computer Information Systems,” “AP Computer Science Principles,” and a course in cyber security.  

“Information Technology Fundamentals” is open to upper level students too, but for ninth graders, it is an elective that can lead students to the other eight upper level courses. School officials say the problem is that not enough students take the fundamentals course, and of those, too few are girls. They say the same problem continues in the upper level courses.

Principal Anna Graham, who is also the assistant superintendent, said of the 64 students enrolled in the nine technology courses at the high school, only 22 are female.  

“We want to try to reduce that barrier, so that they build that confidence when they’re freshmen, and then feel like, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ and then they’ll stick with it,” Graham said. 

Students work in Perry McCluer High School’s computer lab. (Photo by Caroline Leak)

Beyond Buena Vista, the lack of women in the science, technology, engineering and math fields is a problem nationwide. 

Part of the reason women might not be enrolling in computer science courses is that they aren’t exposed early on to the broader field of technology, said Sara Sprenkle, an associate professor of computer science at Washington and Lee University. Sprenkle, co-author of “Reshaping the image of computer science in only fifteen minutes (of class) a week,” said schools need to show how computer science can be relevant to what students care about.  

“A lot of it is showing what you can do with computer science, and that it’s not necessarily how to make money,” Sprenkle said. “It’s how can you create things that allow you to solve the problems that you are interested in.” 

There are no females in some upper level technology courses at PMHS, such as the cyber security course. AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science have one girl each.  

Graham said the Information Technology Fundamentals course serves as a sampling of various areas of technology, covering the basics. The different topics introduced may spark the interest of more students in the upper level courses.  

Teacher Mike Gibson, supervisor of the Career and Technical Education department at PMHS, agrees. He said he wants students to graduate with the computer skills they will need in the future. 

“All the students are proficient in cell phone usage, and Facebook, and Twitter, and Pinterest, but not necessarily in programming and networking and Excel,” Gibson said. “So we want to make sure they have the basic skills they need to be successful in either higher education or the workplace.” 

The high school includes eighth grade, but the technology courses available to those students are different. Throughout the year, they rotate through classes such as robotics, marketing and graphics. But many students stop pursuing computer courses after the eighth grade.   

Graham said that even if state approval doesn’t come by August, the school will encourage ninth graders to enroll in the fundamentals course.  

Buena Vista Schools Superintendent John Keeler said the school system also wants to add technology courses in the middle and elementary schools. Students could potentially begin to learn skills in kindergarten, he said.  

But Graham said it can be hard to find a teacher with the variety of technology skills to teach multiple courses. 

In any case, Keeler said the courses offered at the high school could lead to new career paths for students.  

“It appears [from] everything we hear,” Keeler said, “there’s literally thousands of technology jobs that we couldn’t fill here in Virginia because we can’t get kids certified in them.”