Providing a relevant and compelling Computer Science experience for every ChIcago student

Over a decade ago, computer science within Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was largely limited to career and technical education or high-achieving students who were enrolled in advanced placement courses. But a small group of CPS teachers fought to change that. What started as a grassroots effort to change the classroom led to a Research-Practitioner Partnership (RPP) that would soon revitalize the CPS education system.

Realizing that fewer and fewer students in general were going into computer science due to gender, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities, the group of teachers – including Don Yanek – worked towards a solution to create more equitable opportunities. Along the way, they formed the Chicago chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). These early pioneers soon discovered that a like-minded group of computer science educators were working on developing a curriculum that engaged students in important computer science concepts regardless of their previous experience. They saw this as an opportunity to bring in key education members and formalize a partnership with the power to change policy.

Brenda Wilkerson – then manager of CPS Career and Technical Education IT – along with computer science faculty at University of Illinois at Chicago, DePaul University and Loyola University Chicago, and education researchers at The Learning Partnership came together to create the Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science (CAFÉCS), and support the district in shaping teacher professional learning and enacting policies that emphasize equitable CS education for all students. While advocating for the district to understand the importance of computer science education, Brenda pledged then and there that despite having no initial funding, they would continue to prove and validate the effectiveness of computer science education. Thus, the Computer Science for All (CS4All) movement was born. Years later, CS4All became part of the national lexicon after President Obama launched a national computer science initiative in 2016. Simultaneously, this movement grew into a full-fledged Office of Computer Science (OCS) at CPS – which positioned the district as a national leader in computer science education.

Over the years, CAFÉCS received funding to implement the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) course in CPS schools and offer professional development for all teachers. While ECS was not yet nationally in the mainstream, CPS showed that ECS professional development adequately prepared teachers in fostering student success, developing computational thinking, and increasing participation in computer science in high school and college. CAFÉCS’ proven research led The Chicago Board of Education to make the landmark decision of enacting a graduation requirement for computer science. At the time only about 40% of CPS schools offered computer science, but shortly after that number grew to 100% – making CPS the first and only district to achieve such a significant milestone.

When the first cohort graduated in 2020, over 99.7% of the 17K students in the graduating cohort fulfilled the computer science graduation requirement thanks to CAFÉCS’ collaboration with CPS. ECS has been the primary course students are taking to fulfill the graduation requirement.

Through numerous grants received and extensive research, CAFÉCS continues to bring new opportunities to CPS and support ongoing initiatives. In addition, several large urban districts have replicated a curriculum and professional development model similar to Chicago’s. Most importantly, CAFÉCS’ research continues to show that student outcomes in ECS are equivalent by race and gender, and that ECS has inspired students to take and succeed in advanced computer science coursework.


See 3-minute videos available in the NSF STEM for All Video Showcases:

CAFÉCS: Supporting Quality CS Access 4 All Chicago Students

CAFÉCS CS4ALL Teaching Assistant Program