Coffee Break: Kennan Scott on Cold Brew, Mad Scientists and Teaching STEM to Kids of Color

Kennan Scott teaches engineering at West Oakland Middle School in Oakland, California. Before becoming a teacher, he worked as a transit engineer, where he saw firsthand the isolation and obstacles faced by people of color working in STEM fields. Thanks to a 4.0 Schools Tiny Fellowship, Scott is launching a charter public school, CODEd Academy, that will prepare young people of color to be successful in computer science and STEM professions. CODEd Academy is slated to open in 2019. How do you take your coffee? I prefer drip coffee or cold brew with lots of milk and some sugar. I am relatively new to coffee and only started embracing it in my 30s, during a stressful period when I built our entire IKEA kitchen. You started as a civil engineer and now are a teacher. How did you find your way? I am always the guy on vacation who is like, “Where is the train? I want to get on it.” So, I became a transit engineer in the Bay Area. However, I found a lot of barriers to progress and success. I felt isolated as the only engineer of color on the staff. I decided to get an M.A. in urban and regional planning with a concentration towards transportation—all while getting married and having a baby. I graduated and thought, “Surely now I am the perfect package.” Yet, even with all of my education, I found myself with few opportunities. I was feeling deflated; I was in a bad place. I called my mom because she’s my rock. My mom is a retired New York City special ed teacher of 4th- and 5th-graders; she taught for 28 years. I always had a high regard for the profession. She was the person who changed my trajectory by asking me a critical question: “Have you ever thought about teaching?” How did you earn your teaching certificate? Teach Tomorrow in Oakland is specifically tailored to people of color interested in teaching STEM. They were opening another round of applications at the time. I taught a lesson for them on blind deejaying or beats per minute. Basically, the lesson taught how a person does not need to be able to hear in order to mix songs, as long as he or she understands the math behind beats per minute. The person interviewing me was Black, was interested in the qualities that made me a good human, and saw my Blackness as valuable. That had never happened to me in engineering. I’m a better human because of my transition to teaching; I’m so happy as an educator. Tell me why you wanted to open a computer science school. If we are talking about reaching kids where they are, we better reach them on their cell phones and understand computer science. My first year of teaching computer science, I saw immediately how engaged my students were. That feeling when kids are getting something and loving it is incredible. I knew I wanted to do that all the time. My students who hate coding, but love art, are making amazing buttons. My 8th-graders are making sprites and fonts for apps. My super-coders are making incredible apps that translate language on the fly from a microphone. I have kids who built their own laptop and operating system. Kids who are screaming for more in my classroom, but are sleeping or acting out in other classes, are bored. I ask them, “How do you have an F in other classes, when you can create a complicated, weird program in mine? You are a mad scientist! You shouldn’t be failing anything!” We can make all subjects fun through computer science and it’s important for workforce development. How is 4.0 Schools helping you achieve the launch of your charter school? I love 4.0 Schools. They are like a family and my coach in a boxing match. Talking to others who have gone through the process of launching a school, I’ve been told it’s like fighting a battle. You have to get back up every day. They are the most amazing corner coaches. Matt Candler and the entire team are incredible. At the start of the fellowship, they do a three-day camp. You get beat up (all out of love), so you can see your true self under all the layers. To have people on your side to give you that level of honest feedback is invaluable. Every time there is a next step, they connect me to the right people and resources. In my fellowship cohort, I found my people; the people that I vibe with 100 percent. That is something I never found in my professional engineering life. I finally feel like I could do some real social good. What’s your driving motivation? Every day, when I get up, I am going to witness a student strive for excellence. I know that Amaya has got something for me today. Edgar needs me to give him something, so he can fly. I can’t say no to those relationships. It’s actual love. I actually love those little people.
Katelyn Silva
Katelyn Silva is mom to a third grader and an education writer in Providence, Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the chief communications officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the communications director at the University of Chicago ...

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