Impact Stories: Leontae

Teacher’s STEAM business shows youth new career paths

Lots of us took up hobbies or watched too much TV during the pandemic. Not Leontae Gray-Ward, a mother of two sons and a full-time Project Lead the Way instructor for School City of Hammond. She started a business to teach young people how to code.

Gray-Ward had never seen herself teaching coding outside a classroom. Her family had long encouraged her to lead workshops for the community, but she always said no. They had more confidence in her than she had in herself, she said.

When the pandemic hit, though, Gray-Ward’s energy and desire to help as many young people as possible won out.

“The timing of the pandemic forced me to move beyond my doubts. It really challenged me to become confident in my vision,” she said. “I’ve always wanted youth – regardless of their background – to understand that computer science and technology can open doors to opportunities and self-knowledge.”

More knowledge, more opportunity

With her 12- and 3-year-old sons as inspiration, she founded S.T.E.A.M. City Tek Exec to lead training and workshops in coding as well as science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics for youth and adults. She’s partnered with such organizations as Ivy Tech, 21st Century Community Learning Centers and Educator Pivoting in Purpose for E-learning – and even Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short and his charitable organization’s Youth STEAM & Football Camp.

“That experience ignited me,” Gray-Ward said. “It was the reality of my vision: to expose underrepresented youth to coding and show them they have more choices in life than just what they can see in front of them.”

All schools don’t promote PLTW and computer science classes to all students – or all parents, Gray-Ward said. When neither students nor parents understand the career pathways these areas of study can provide, and when “they don’t think about it because they don’t see people who look like them doing it,” Gray-Ward said, we can’t expect higher enrollment.

“Students need more ways to express themselves, and computer science can do that as much as art or music. You want to do art? You can do art with CS. If students are given the opportunity to express themselves in the way they like to, then they’ll be better equipped when they go out and look for a job,” she said.

One crucial step is to give students more flexibility in scheduling their classes.

“When we were young, we were often given the opportunity to select the classes we wanted to take. Students today aren’t always given options,” Gray-Ward said. “They’re put in tracks or placed into courses that may not support their personal or career dreams.”

So how do you get a child who may be interested in a CS course into a CS class?

“I tell them, ‘You have to tell your parents, and they have to be your advocate with the school. Otherwise, it probably won’t happen.’”

Right now, she said, kids need all the encouragement they can get.

“With COVID, virtual school and trying to figure out who they want to be, students are discouraged. When I was their age, I had parents who were my advocates and who gave me the structure I needed to succeed. Now I feel I have to do the same thing for others.”

Building on Nextech’s foundation

In sharing the many ways she’s helping students, Gray-Ward pauses often to say, “I can do it because of Nextech.”

The relationship began with a Computer Science Principles professional development course in June 2018.

“I enjoyed it so much I went back the following year and completed the CS Discoveries course,” she laughed. “One of the best things about Nextech is all the people you get to meet. I’ve met so many people from throughout Indiana who I’ve become close with, thanks to Nextech.”

She’s just finished her CS Ed certification, “thanks again to Nextech,” and is working on a Transition to Teach license. She’s also a CSTA (Computer Science Teachers Association) Equity Fellow for 2021-2022, thanks to another opportunity through Nextech.

“Nextech sponsored me to attend a virtual conference last year, and after all those workshops and webinars I’d completed, I applied for the fellowship and got in,” Gray said. “I’m learning a lot working with the people in my cohort. We all work in various aspects of computer science, yet we all strive to address the inequalities that marginalized communities face when it comes to accessing computer science opportunities.”

Lots of us took up hobbies or watched too much TV during the pandemic. Not Leontae Gray-Ward, a mother of two sons and a full-time Project Lead the Way instructor for School City of Hammond. She started a business to teach young people how to code.

Gray-Ward had never seen herself teaching coding outside a classroom. Her family had long encouraged her to lead workshops for the community, but she always said no. They had more confidence in her than she had in herself, she said.

When the pandemic hit, though, Gray-Ward’s energy and desire to help as many young people as possible won out.

“The timing of the pandemic forced me to move beyond my doubts. It really challenged me to become confident in my vision,” she said. “I’ve always wanted youth – regardless of their background – to understand that computer science and technology can open doors to opportunities and self-knowledge.”

More knowledge, more opportunity

With her 12- and 3-year-old sons as inspiration, she founded S.T.E.A.M. City Tek Exec to lead training and workshops in coding as well as science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics for youth and adults. She’s partnered with such organizations as Ivy Tech, 21st Century Community Learning Centers and Educator Pivoting in Purpose for E-learning – and even Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short and his charitable organization’s Youth STEAM & Football Camp.

“That experience ignited me,” Gray-Ward said. “It was the reality of my vision: to expose underrepresented youth to coding and show them they have more choices in life than just what they can see in front of them.”

All schools don’t promote PLTW and computer science classes to all students – or all parents, Gray-Ward said. When neither students nor parents understand the career pathways these areas of study can provide, and when “they don’t think about it because they don’t see people who look like them doing it,” Gray-Ward said, we can’t expect higher enrollment.

“Students need more ways to express themselves, and computer science can do that as much as art or music. You want to do art? You can do art with CS. If students are given the opportunity to express themselves in the way they like to, then they’ll be better equipped when they go out and look for a job,” she said.

One crucial step is to give students more flexibility in scheduling their classes.

“When we were young, we were often given the opportunity to select the classes we wanted to take. Students today aren’t always given options,” Gray-Ward said. “They’re put in tracks or placed into courses that may not support their personal or career dreams.”

So how do you get a child who may be interested in a CS course into a CS class?

“I tell them, ‘You have to tell your parents, and they have to be your advocate with the school. Otherwise, it probably won’t happen.’”

Right now, she said, kids need all the encouragement they can get.

“With COVID, virtual school and trying to figure out who they want to be, students are discouraged. When I was their age, I had parents who were my advocates and who gave me the structure I needed to succeed. Now I feel I have to do the same thing for others.”

Building on Nextech’s foundation

In sharing the many ways she’s helping students, Gray-Ward pauses often to say, “I can do it because of Nextech.”

The relationship began with a Computer Science Principles professional development course in June 2018.

“I enjoyed it so much I went back the following year and completed the CS Discoveries course,” she laughed. “One of the best things about Nextech is all the people you get to meet. I’ve met so many people from throughout Indiana who I’ve become close with, thanks to Nextech.”

She’s just finished her CS Ed certification, “thanks again to Nextech,” and is working on a Transition to Teach license. She’s also a CSTA (Computer Science Teachers Association) Equity Fellow for 2021-2022, thanks to another opportunity through Nextech.

“Nextech sponsored me to attend a virtual conference last year, and after all those workshops and webinars I’d completed, I applied for the fellowship and got in,” Gray said. “I’m learning a lot working with the people in my cohort. We all work in various aspects of computer science, yet we all strive to address the inequalities that marginalized communities face when it comes to accessing computer science opportunities.”