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C Spire wants partners for tech, coding classes

A Mississippi tech company is pushing for the development of a computer science curriculum in high schools and community colleges statewide, going town-to-town to drum up support for the expansion of “coding academies.”

C Spire Vice President of Marketing Jim Richmond and public relations manager Scott Parenteau unveiled the plan to a meeting of the Brookhaven Industrial Development Foundation Monday afternoon, kicking off a planned state tour of speaking engagements with community and business leaders to build backing for the project. The longterm plan calls for the addition of computer science-focused curriculum on the high school and community college level, taught by certified instructors, that will allow graduates to earn entry-level software development jobs without the need for four-year college programs.

“They can start college with a leg up and dive deeper into their career paths, or if a student doesn’t want to go to college, it will give them a shot at a great career,” Parenteau said. “We’ll definitely see economic growth and an expanding workforce.”

The plan would be modeled on Basecamp Coding Academy in Water Valley, which enrolls nominated students in a 12-month course for software development.

The C Spire representatives showed the IDF some alarming stats as proof of why computer science and coding — writing the instructions that power software — are needed in the state’s high schools.

Mississippi ranks 49th in technology, 49th in Internet access and only 7 percent of Magnolia State high schools offer A&P computer science coursework. More millennials are leaving Mississippi than any other state.

Meanwhile, there are more than 1,000 computing jobs open in Mississippi, but all the state’s major colleges turn out around 155 computer science graduates per year. The nation, likewise, is graduating around 40,000 computer science students per year to fill an estimated half-million computing jobs.

Parenteau said state and regional corporations are so hungry for software developers, FedEx — a supporter of Basecamp Coding Academy — offered to hire all 11 of the school’s inaugural graduates without conducting interviews.

Computer science careers offer lifetime average earnings of around $5 million, Parenteau said.

“There is all sorts of opportunity out there — the problem is we have no one to fill it,” he said. “It’s incredibly important to us to make sure our tech workforce is prepared.”

C Spire plans to provide funding to MDE to run the coding academy pilot program, which is scheduled to commence in the fall of 2019, but Parenteau and Richmond told the IDF the state will have to take over the program in the second year, which will require legislative action for funding. The company is hitting the road now, meeting with the IDF and other groups to begin building support to rally lawmakers when the time comes.

“We’re looking for communities, for leaders, to get involved,” Richmond said. “The coding academy model has been successful, but we’ve got to get that model on steroids.”

Many questions have to be answered before computer science becomes a staple curriculum option in Mississippi.

Brookhaven School District Superintendent Ray Carlock pointed out his schools are not affiliated with MDE’s computer science initiative and asked about program costs. There will be no charge to high school students, but setting up the curriculum and equipment will require an investment.

Jackie Martin, Copiah-Lincoln Community College’s career-tech dean, asked how local computing jobs would be identified to keep the program’s graduates in the community. While there is currently no such listing, IDF member Bill Jacobs pointed out there are opportunities.

“We have Aptiv in Brookhaven, and their mission is smart cars. They are looking for coders everywhere,” he said. “There’s an opportunity we have that doesn’t exist in other parts of the state.”

Co-Lin President Jane Hulon said the college has already begun working with C Spire to advance the computer science initiative and will continue to partner with the program.

Richmond said a new coding academy, like Basecamp, could be built in Meadville, C Spire’s hometown.