Our 2021-22 Innovation Issue salutes educators who dare to imagine a world where life is better for their students:
“My students know I mean business, but they also know I care for them and want them to be their best selves at all times.”
Chantel Parnell’s students are only in middle school. But they are on a pathway to well-paying careers and diversifying the tech industry, thanks to her.
Parnell, a teacher at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland, was named Teacher of the Year by her district last May for developing computer science and animation courses at her school — and creating the district’s only all-girls computer science class.
“My girls love being in a girls’ class just for them,” says the Oakland Education Association member. “We have newcomer girls, too. They are getting stronger with their English skills, and we are all learning a whole new computer language together.”
Parnell sees herself as helping to create a pipeline of women in computer science that will help diversify the tech industry in the Bay Area and beyond. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer science research jobs will grow 19 percent by 2026. Yet women only earn 18 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. The percentage of women working in computer science-related professions dropped from 35 to 26 percent between 1990 and 2013.
Parnell, who teaches primarily Black and Latino students, hopes to see the tech industry become more racially diverse, too, reflecting California’s demographics. The challenge is real: According to a 2020 Los Angeles Times story, “The industry has failed to move the needle on workplace diversity,” and as a result, “an entire sector of the economy … is functionally barely open to Black and Latino people.”
Parnell grew up in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles and went to school in LA Unified. She always wanted to be a teacher.
“Growing up, I would gather all the kids on my block to come onto my lawn, where I had a chalkboard, and have them do math.”
With support from the Fulfillment Fund (an LA nonprofit that helps make college a reality for students growing up in underresourced communities), she attended Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. After graduation she joined Teach for America. She was placed at Bret Harte; after five years as a math teacher, she was ready for a change.
“I had an opportunity to pilot an all-girls introduction to computer science class. I went to an all-women’s college and knew the advantages of being surrounded by other girls — which is being more willing to take risks, speak up, and share ideas. I wanted to duplicate that experience with students on my campus.”
She sought support and expertise from Code.org, a nonprofit that expands access to computer science, including animation, while increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.
“It was a very exciting time for me to be surrounded by young ladies and all of us learning together. I was up-front with my students. I said, ‘I’m terrified too, I don’t know how it will turn out, but let’s see where it takes us.’”
It has taken her to new opportunities, where she now teaches computer science and animation, including one all-girls computer science class.
Parnell describes her teaching style as warm but demanding. “My students know I mean business, but they also know I care for them and want them to be their best selves at all times.”
“I wanted to take computer science because coding is super fun,” says Vernia Morgan, eighth grader and student body president, who is enrolled in the all-girls class. “Being in this class opened my mind to a career path in computer science.”
“I really like the way Ms. Parnell teaches, because it makes me feel like I have something to look forward to,” says seventh grader Charlie Sellman.
Parnell lets her students shine. Pre-pandemic, they presented at the inaugural Future Trailblazer Challenge hosted by Salesforce, competing with students from other schools in a style similar to the TV show Shark Tank. Her students used coding and a 3D printer to build a solution to a problem — school shootings — and created a drop-down mechanism on classroom doors to keep intruders out. Her students have also met with UNICEF ambassador and soccer star David Beckham to discuss concerns about the state of the world.
“For me, the fun comes when I allow students to create what they want to create and see them apply all the skills they have learned,” Parnell says. “I love seeing them do what they are interested in and sharing that with their classmates.”
Parnell also trains teachers in computer science alongside computer science specialists. During the pandemic she created videos for her students, and she continues the practice this year.
She cried happy tears when she was named Teacher of the Year.
“It was so nice to be recognized. It’s not about what we do in the classroom; it’s also about preparing our students to be successful in the outside world. I’m so glad I wasn’t afraid to take a risk. We are all teachers and learners. We are all in this together.”