Mashea Ashton: Digital Pioneers Academy, Computer Science, and Character

A school focused on computer science? “Sometimes I think it isn’t even that innovative; it just makes sense,” says Mashea Ashton, Founder and CEO of Digital Pioneers Academy.

Opening this fall in an unused wing of the East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Ward 7, it will be the first middle school in DC that focuses specifically on computational skills. Starting with 120 students in sixth grade, the school will expand to Grades 7 and 8, and Mashea hopes to eventually expand through high school. Education Forward DC is one of several organizations that has supported Mashea and her team as she prepares to open the school.

Mashea recently returned to DC after a career as a special education teacher and then two decades implementing and scaling best practices in urban education across the country. She saw that the huge demand for jobs in computer science will create career opportunities for students in DC, and that the skills and character they develop learning computer science will go well beyond technical skills alone.

Education Forward DC: You recently moved back to DC. What prompted you to start Digital Pioneers Academy?

Mashea Ashton: A couple of things became clear to me: One is that we need more high quality, college prep schools, particularly for students east of the Anacostia River.

Two, as I thought about our students and their families, they need college, but they also need real jobs—jobs that are going to help break the cycle of poverty that so many of our students and families are experiencing.

And then I saw an article that said [there will be] one million high paying jobs in computer science. And I immediately thought: well who’s doing something about this?

Ed Forward DC: What if a student doesn’t want to be a computer scientist?

Mashea: The skills are problem-solving, communications, collaboration, and working in teams to really solve the most complex problems. There’s this specific technical skill around coding and computer science which we want to make sure our kids have, but it’s these other skills that I think are going to be transferable that are going to let our kids do whatever they want.

What are you interested in? What are you excited about? Is it fashion, sports, computer science, technology? I can show you directly how through studying computer science you will be able to pursue your passion and your dreams. It is just a skill set and a way of thinking and it transfers to anything you are interested in.

Ed Forward DC: Do other schools in DC have a computer science program?

Mashea: There are a number of schools that focus on STEM or STEAM. We do not call ourselves either. The opportunity where there are the most unfilled jobs and the least explored content area is computer science. We are the first middle school in all of Washington, DC, to focus explicitly on computer science.

 Ed Forward DC: What kind of community are you creating?

Mashea: Innovators have to be creative. They have to ask why. They have to understand the connections. When we think about character, it is about developing the mindset and habits of innovators. Yes, you have to have mutual respect and you have to have the character skills: hard work and determination and collaboration and respect for community. But it’s also just being free to think and to create and to make connections and to find meaning. That is the community we are trying to create.

Ed Forward DC: What has the process of working with Education Forward DC been like?

Mashea: If it were not for both the financial resources—and the thought leadership and partnership along this journey to launch DPA, this just wouldn’t have happened.

Education Forward DC understands that entrepreneurial educators need the time and resources to beg, borrow, and steal from the best, to learn, to try to pilot things, so we can really be responsive to the students and families we are trying to serve.