CSA Wants YOU – Santa Barbara High School’s Computer Science Academy is Turning Heads

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

“Open the pod-bay doors please, HAL.”

When nervous astronaut Dave Bowman—all helmetless and helpless in his space pod—tries to re-enter the mothership Discovery, he is rebuffed by the ship’s soft-spoken HAL 9000 computer. Hey, who hasn’t had an annoying exchange with a digital assistant? It seems, though, that HAL (a state-of-the-art Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) has seriously mischievous plans, driven by that scariest and least understood of machine motivations—Pure Logic.

Writer Arthur C. Clarke—on whose story the film is based—was ever-adamant about one particular plot point; the one-letter alphabetic shift between the name of his AI villain HAL and early personal computing research giant IBM was pure coincidence.

Yeah, right.

early computer lockout – HAL says no

The awkward episode with HAL in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey loudly underscored that day’s cultural unease with the promise and power of computing. Today, that ship has sailed, and then some. A half-century of convivial coding has made HAL a pal.

“Coding is as important as reading, writing, and mathematics,” says Richard Johnston, Director of Santa Barbara High School’s vaunted Computer Science Academy (CSA). “Coding is the fourth leg of the stool today.” He pauses, then adds with the guarded enthusiasm of a guy at a speakeasy, “I’ll also say that coding is a rush!”


Santa Barbara High School, the historically heartfelt jewel in the crown of SB secondary schools (and the town’s only h.s. till 1958), has the architectural presentation of an Ivy League English building and the heart of a starship. A glass-encased Hall of Fame celebrates SBHS alums who saw the future and grabbed with both hands, among them dance pioneer Martha Graham, aviation giant John Northrup and investment brand Charles Schwab (when he was an actual uncombed kid who buttoned his shirt wrong and had to walk the family dog). These nervy SB teens all went on to innovatively disrupt their respective fields, big time. Today, the SBHS Computer Science Academy (CSA) pushes the tradition forward at approximate warp speed. Fixated on the future, CSA as an actualized tech talent incubator has garnered the avid attentions and ministrations of tech companies in the region.  

Far-seeing CSA Director Richard Johnston

CSA’s Director Richard Johnston is a self-professed numbers guy whose plans on becoming  “a pure mathematician” were happily waylaid by teaching. His ready smile, Mission Control specs, and eruptive happy cackle (always preceded by a sort of expectant hush) are indeed reminiscent of the somewhat otherworldly slide rule maestros this writer knew in high school.

By the time Johnston arrived at SBHS in 1998, he’d established himself as an educator adept at designing tailored programs for kids whose academic needs weren’t wholly addressed by the public school curricular template, and in 2008 he was asked to create a Math Honor Society to serve SBHS math-adepts; students who weren’t getting all they could from unwieldy class sizes in the math department. The MHS success story saw some of its fundamentals adopted district-wide, including what is now called the block schedule. Then the pod bay doors opened.

[Acronym Warning] With the MHS at SBHS in full swing, Johnston’s interest was piqued by a small group of students in the program. “They were hip to robotics, engineering, applied math. I couldn’t ignore what they wanted, and what this activated group of parents wanted—a computer science program.”

Once that diode had incandesced, things progressed quickly. In the summer of 2011, one of the core group’s parents sent Johnston to Boston for 6 weeks of training, a brash move that would ultimately put SBHS on the front lines of a Computer Science curricular revolution in Santa Barbara’s public schools. “It was training to launch a Computer Science Principles pilot course,” Johnston explains. He was one of the first teachers to test fly the curriculum.

Immodest Invasion of the Industry Interests

The success of that pilot course at SBHS made one thing clear. Going forward, the course programming, teaching load, and required ongoing training would be unsustainable for Johnston. “So we recruited (Senior Analyst) Paul Muhl from (Goleta-based tech research/defense systems giant) Toyon,” Johnston says.  Director Muhl had taught high school before entering industry, and was reportedly pleased to be back in the saddle somewhat. “It was…amazing,” Johnston says, still marveling. “They basically loaned him to us. Toyon thought CS education in the high schools was that important.”

“What if you put that in the heads of these young CSA students here—hey, you don’t just start here, you stay here.” 

Doug Madey

Other tech stakeholders emerged from the woodwork early on to nurture CSA—an academy whose forward-leaning mission aligned (and aligns) with their interests. When Muhl was called back to Toyon two years later (he still teaches a CS class at SBHS), Johnston stepped in as Director, having in the interim aborbed more than he could have foreseen.

“I’ve had a rollercoaster of learning,” Johnston says of the past five years, “and a chance to work with Berkeley, UCLA, Cal Poly, UCSB.” For the numbers guy whose Math Honor Society morphed into a CS tsunami at SBHS, it’s been a digital ride whose overarching theme is analog gratitude. “I can tell you this—Appfolio, Toyon, QAD, Sonos, Novacoast—these guys have been my mentors and guides from the beginning. They’ve been my rock.”

Academia Mania

Higher education has had a hand in CSA from the start. CSA students even visited UCLA in a program to help UCLA’s non-CS teachers integrate CS elements into their classroom subject matter. SBHS’ first CS Principles course was effectively written by UC Berkeley, tweaked by UCLA, and delivered as the SBHS freshman course Exploring Computer Science.

CSA is constantly being re-examined on the fly, answering to stakeholders—from universities to the Cal State system to industry— and recalibrating on the go to assure the coursework continues to fulfill its early promise. This year CSA began offering a computer science class at SB Junior High, taught by Sky Adams.

“We have several very powerful stakeholders we have to satisfy, the first and foremost being the students, “ Johnston says, and this isn’t just decorative PR flapdoodle. “This year,” he adds with a matter-of-factness that belies the emergency, “there is a need for 22,000 more computer scientists than are set to graduate from college.” Industry is understandably keen on seeing that shortfall addressed.

Carpinteria’s cloud-based construction colossus Procore, for instance, has given SBHS’ CSA students tours of the blufftop campus and precious time with its software engineers. Tyler Goff, part-time tour guide and Procore’s Intern Program Manager, spotted some mojo in the CSA gang.

Procore’s Tyler Goff holds court as CSA preps for tour

“The students from Santa Barbara High School’s Computer Science Academy were a rare breed—anxious to learn, contagiously curious, full of insightful questions. The engineers they shadowed were impressed with the level of maturity and focus.” Darryl Kysar—Director of the firm’s educational outreach arm Procore.org—is likewise tasked with looking afield for regional CS brilliance. “We’ve built the Procore Coding Academy, and we’ve partnered with Girls Inc. on providing instruction.”

Procore Code Corps (try saying that three times fast, or even slowly)  reaches out to teach basic code to Girls club members in the area, and Procore.org has also delivered coding instruction to the SB Juvenile Probation department. Everyone has passion and aptitude, but not everyone has the good fortune to see that in themselves. Kysar and team are determined to reach into the community and flip those switches.

Daisy and Kathleen!  

Daisy Moschitto (CSA Program Manager) and Kathleen Rogers (CSA Foundation Board Member) are explaining the support clockworks of the CSA. Our surroundings are decidedly steampunk—or coffee shop, I guess, depending on your mood. Knob-covered java machines roar and hiss like Willy Wonka set decoration as the two insiders politely shout through the cacophony. They’re explaining the finer points of a futurist academy ever needful of old school green to make it go.

tomorrow’s algorithmic advance guard take in a lecture

“SBHS is a public school,” Kathleen says. “So, you know, everyone thinks ‘Oh, it’s a public school, it’s all publicly funded!’” Her ironic eyebrows suggest that is emphatically not the case. “The teacher and the classroom are paid for by the district. What the foundation does is…everything else.” Daisy sums up.

“The easy breakdown is to say all the extracurriculars are foundation-supported.” The so-called Extracurriculars include wide-eyed student tours of high-tech corporate campuses (Procore, Google, Snapchat, Ticketmaster, et al), field trips to Silicon Valley, job shadows, hackathons, summer camp outreach, internship possibilities, and guest speakers from the rarefied working world of CS.

Johnston and Paul Muhl bring symmetry to an early CSA

The ever-sprinting CSA Foundation also throws fiduciary love at CSA classes that don’t meet the school district’s attendance minimum for funding. Bottom line is this: the CSA Foundation and its board of usefully manic volunteers (President Dagny Dehlsen, VP Paula Cassin, [non-voting] Treasurer Christine Reynolds, Secretary Miriam Metzger, and members Betsy Heafitz, Kathleen Rogers, Tammy LeMelle, Nick Papadopoulos, and Inger Budke) are not funding cupcakes for the yearly CSA social; even if there was such a thing.

CSA Summer Camp counselors
spread the news, byte by byte..

“We raise money so the kids themselves don’t have to worry,” Kathleen hollers over a blasting espresso contraption across the room. To which Daisy adds, “We make it pretty clear in our CSA literature that we want everyone to attend everything they want to attend.” Kathleen takes the tag. “There is no advantage or disadvantage for a student based on the income of their parents. And I think that is what’s unique about the Computer Science Academy. We are an Open Academy.”

Non-Binary Brio

CSA is as much a genuinely preparatory academic and professional experience as the participating student wants it to be. Yes, there is surely a more compelling way to say that.  Santa Barbara High School’s CSA is indeed an Open Academy. What does that mean? “We have a passion for reaching kids,” Kathleen says, “and for making sure that any kid at Santa Barbara High School that wants to take a class and learn about computer science can do that.”

Ella & Stella in the absence of a fella. Girls Who Code with mentor/teacher Sky Adams

Her counterpart is nodding and smiling. “This is what makes us an Open Academy,” Daisy says. “You can take one or two classes and not have applied to the Computer Science Academy at all. Our classes are a mix of academy students and non-academy SBHS students.” That is, the CSA is not an all-or-nothing proposition, not a Yes or No proposition. It is a “Please come as you are, kiddo—and see if this is your fork in the road” proposition. That’s a big deal for young, nascent CS acolytes whose circumstances might otherwise prevent them from discovering in themselves an aptitude that Tomorrow is counting on them finding.

This is not a completely altruistic approach, but an avid and serious search for Diversity; a term worn to dullness by constant handling in the culture. Is diversity an end or a means?


Parable of the Buick

“Let’s talk about the Open Academy, and why that’s so important.” Richard Johnston says, and visibly collects his thoughts. “Computer Science still has the stigma of the geeky guy in the back of the room. It’s not like that any more, but by now it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So a girl thinks ‘I’m not going to join’ or a kid’s family thinks ‘oh, it’s the we-all-look-alike club’ and he’s not going to join.” Johnston pauses and looks at me.

“We really really need all those people. I mean, we need them.” He raises his hands and begins gesturing. “Look, in the seventies, cars were these behemoth boats, absolutely heavy. No power steering, no power brakes. They weighed almost 4000 pounds.” He smiles. “Have you ever driven one?” Yep. “And at that time women were labeled as not being very good drivers. If there was any truth to that, it was because it took a lot of strength to drive those cars. To make a U-turn in one of those things was a feat. ‘No thanks! I’ll just drive around the block!’” Johnston pauses expectantly, then breaks into cackling laughter. I can see why the kids love this guy.

what’s the problem?

“What happened was, as soon as we got female automotive engineers, we got power brakes almost immediately, we got power steering almost immediately. The hoods sloped so you could see the road in front of you, the window array suddenly gave you more visibility. Because those were concerns women had that men didn’t even know should be addressed. Men could see over the hood of the car just fine; they averaged 6 to 8 inches higher in the car seat than women.” Am I getting his takeaway? “We weren’t designing for 50% of the population!”

He pauses while this sinks in. “Right now, if all we have is the white male computer scientist, we’re designing for 20 – 25% of the population.” Here come the nuts and bolts. “We need as broad a population as possible in order to design the best possible product. We want everyone to take computer science. We want lower socioeconomic students…if you don’t have a computer at home, we want you here. Our doors are open. We need every kind of computer scientist we can get.”

Tech Hubbub

SBHS CSA (hoo boy) is about five years young now, and making waves. From Appscale to Yardi, SB has long been a tech start-up paradise, but these days things seem to be ramping up considerably. Amazon’s software engineers and retail enablers are reportedly preparing to swarm into the Saks building at State and Carrillo, right in the middle of our darkling commercial district. If SB turns into Silicon Valley2  (as some pundits are predicting) what will that make Santa Barbara High School’s already celebrated Computer Science Academy? And what will that make Santa Barbara? With the help of CSA, it could make SB a self-sustaining tech village.

Google’s luxury egg-magnet

Corporate Communications guy Doug Madey knows from tech hubs and how not to grow them, having worked in PR at Linkedin’s Mountain View campus for three years while living in San Francisco with his wife. The networking giant would send conspicuous luxury buses into the city every day to pick up its workers, in full sight of city folk standing and waiting for their beleaguered SF public transport. It put Madey in the ironic middle of a PR nightmare. “Here’s a fancy bus for a select group of people who work at this company,” he says with a fraught expression. “If you don’t work there you can just wait for the city bus, and whatever it costs you it costs you.” In time the tech buses shrank the embarrassed company decal on their rides, slinking around town to drop off self-conscious and guilt-addled tech workers, Madey among them. The Google fleet in particular eventually attracted the ire of an egg-throwing public in SF.

Madey sees SB as a place where locally grown talent can foment a tech hub where work and life are not mutually exclusive, because the workforce is from the town where all the start-ups are sprouting.

“What if you put that in the heads of these young CSA students here—hey, you don’t just start here, you stay here.” SBHS’ CSA may one day be a self-fulfilling prophecy, sending kids out for their technology degrees, and seeing them return to our little Selfie-by-the-Sea to work in industry here.. What does tech hub even mean? And could SB become one? Madey can speak to that. “It means there are enough local opportunities that if you choose to leave your job, there are other tech options in the area. In Santa Barbara that’s already happening.”

The Hills are Alive with CSA  

“Computer Science is a part of every subject,” says Daisy Moschitto. “This is not a fluffy program. Santa Barbara High School’s CSA is a real program offering real opportunities, real educational growth, real world experience. That’s one thing I would say to parents.” Daisy is adamant.  “Computer science is not a required part of curriculum. Yet. So you have to advocate to your child to take computer science. Don’t let them graduate without that. It touches everything.” As for Kathleen, she has a rhetorical question for the region’s burgeoning and future tech interests.

“Look, do you want these kids to grow up and leave, or do you want these kids to grow up and come back?”  

Swaggering Santa Barbara tech firms present and future—you in?