Web Server
First built to provide access to vital technology training for underserved children, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Coded by Kids has evolved to help people of all ages
by Leigh Stuart

Without opportunity to learn, grow and excel, how bright can a child’s future be?

One local program, Coded by Kids, seeks to address this conundrum by providing young people with access to training in technology so they may be set on a path to a successful future career in an exciting and, more importantly, in-demand field.

“I’m a product of the Philadelphia public school system,” says Sylvester Mobley, executive director and founder of Coded by Kids (codedbykids.com). “No one ever talked to us about careers in technology.”

Mobley enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps two weeks after completing high school and spent the next four years with the Marines. He then reenlisted in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and spent another four years of service with that branch. He later transitioned to the Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq.

While he was with the Air Force, he worked as a computer network cryptographic and switching systems specialist. “I realized there was a whole world we never learned about in school,” he says. He also earned a degree in finance, which he started while with the Air Force and completed as a member of the National Guard, from Temple University.

After leaving the military, he moved into IT management and spent a great deal of time managing tech projects. He also put an emphasis on giving back to the community of which he had been a part.

His efforts began with teaching one student at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philadelphia. Today, just two short years later, the organization has grown from having Mobley as the sole instructor of a single student to a team of 22 volunteer instructors and, at its peak capacity, 90 students per week.

Over the last 12 months Coded by Kids has held approximately 200 classes. Mobley explains that Coded by Kids will always offer free classes for children because, as he says, “I never wanted there to be a cost barrier to any of our kids.” Also, Mobley says the organization has been working with the City of Philadelphia to expand to more recreation centers. His goal is to expand to serve all of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

Coded by Kids has formed partnerships with local schools including Martin Luther King High School in Germantown, as well as String Theory Charter School and Freire Charter School, both in Center City. At those the two Center City schools, Coded by Kids instruction has become an integral part of the school day.

Coded by Kids’ curriculum is designed to match the real-world needs of the industry. All the classes, Mobley explains, are project based. “All of our students learn real-world skills in order to move into the industry as developers,” Mobley explains.

Another advantage of the program is that it does not run in strict sessions or terms.

“Because we don’t run in sessions,” Mobley adds, we are structured so that we have classes every week so all the kids are working on individual projects. We don’t have a lot of time constraints.”

While each Coded by Kids project is tied directly to a curriculum, the kids in the program never see it. “We want them to feel as far away from school as possible,” Mobley says. For this reason, each young person’s project reflects a number of skills and concepts, and each time a student finishes a project, the student then moves on to something more complex.

Relating the experience of one student, Mobley describes a project completed by a 7-year-old who loves the movie “Frozen.” Even at age 7, Coded by Kids students are tackling tasks such as designing their own websites. This student’s instructor asked her to complete tasks such as locating three favorite images to use on the site, as well as creating headline tags and adding links. The student was also asked to write about movie-related topics.

By monitoring the student’s progress with such tasks, instructors are able to look at not just web-development talents but also aspects of students’ learning inside their regular classrooms, such as dexterity with grammar and punctuation.

Changing the Trajectory
Independence is one of the central tenets of the education provided by Coded by Kids. In addition to having children devise their own projects based upon their unique interests, students are also supported in solving any issues that may arise in their programming. All of the kids in the program debug their own software, and all are supported in solving their own problems. Group work is also encouraged, however, so that students’ team-working abilities are tested and strengthened.

“We teach them that it’s important to learn how to work together, especially when not everyone agrees,” Mobley says. “We teach them to sort through their issues and compromise to decide what’s best for the group.”

As for which children can participate in the program, Mobley emphasizes that he does not screen students based on factors such as behavior or grades. “As long as a child has a desire to learn,” he says, “they’re welcome in the classes.”

The organization, which continues to grow, has split into two groups: the Coded by Kids nonprofit; and a Coded by Kids B Corporation—a socially conscious business with a commitment to high ethical standards—to help funnel revenue back into the nonprofit.

Coded by Kids received a grant of approximately $20,000 from StartUp PHL and is well underway with its adult classes, including a 12-week development boot camp. Such programs will provide adults with the chance to participate in intensive study that could lead to employment in a field where an average job—as, say, a front-end web developer—can offer a starting salary of $50,000 or more per year.

Many for-profit companies, Mobley explains, charge as much as $15,000 for such boot camps. Considering the salaries offered to those who have completed such programs, the investment is worth the money—but only if someone has $15,000 to invest in the first place. Coded by Kids wants to offer its development program for a far more reasonable price so that members of low- to moderate- income families can acquire the skills to earn better jobs and improve their financial statuses.

“This isn’t just an education issue,” Mobley says. “This is also an economic issue.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 26.5 percent of Philadelphia County residents live below the poverty line. This produces a tremendous barrier to low-income individuals who wish to pursue higher education in technology but are prohibited by the high cost of continuing-education classes in the field.

“You take an industry like this, where there aren’t enough people to fill the jobs, and one of the best ways to address this is to give skills to people who are looking for opportunities,” Mobley says. “By giving people these skills, and connecting people with employers, you are able to change the trajectory of a family.”

Photograph by Sylvester Mobley