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Jefferson Award Winner Aims To Bridge Digital Divide Among Bay Area High School Students

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – With very few California high school students being enrolled in computer science, this week's Jefferson Award winner heads a nonprofit aimed at bringing those numbers up and bridging the digital divide.

According to the Computer Science for California coalition, only three percent of California high school students are enrolled in the field.

DeJohn Thompson always wanted to learn to code. When he got the chance to take free classes in Python from the San Francisco-based nonprofit Mission Bit, he saw his future.

"This is something that you can really proceed with and achieve, continue to work on," Thompson said.

This fall, he will enter Texas Southern University as a computer science major.

As CEO of Mission Bit, Christina Ortega creates opportunities for underserved 8th through 12th graders like Thompson.

Jefferson Awards - Christina Ortega
Christina Ortega, Jefferson Award Winner. (CBS)

Opportunities the San Francisco native wishes she had growing up in the Bay Area.

"It really means a lot to me to be able to provide this opportunity to students. Because I feel that had there been a Mission Bit when I was in high school, I could have possibly been one of our web design students," said Ortega, whose background is in nonprofits and youth development.

Mission Bit offers after-school courses, workshops and summer boot camps.

It partners with mostly San Francisco, but also with Oakland public schools and charter schools.

Volunteers teach more than 360 students each year. That rose to 600 students online in the pandemic.

Nine in 10 are students of color.

Students soak up lessons in programming, web and game design, and virtual reality, and they produce projects that give back to the community.

"So many of the students for their demo day project create a website for a local mom and pop shop that had no website in the beginning," Ortega said.

Through Mission Bit, Rafael Perez received the training he needed to enroll in AP computer science in high school.

"It gives me a head start in my future. Seems like an open door for me," Perez said.

Ortega is also a mentor. She urged Thompson, who's never been on a plane or out of state, not to be afraid to go to college out of California.

"She's proud of me that I'm going far and getting these different opportunities and experiences," Thompson said.

Ortega hopes more city grants, and donations from corporations, individuals and foundations will allow Mission Bit to keep bridging the digital divide.

"It makes me want to work harder to create more of these stories," she told KPIX 5.

For giving thousands of underserved teenagers the opportunity to learn and pursue computer science, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Christina Ortega.


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