When Sheyla Gyles began high school at Washington Leadership Academy, she had little knowledge about, or interest in, computer science.
"Honestly I really didn't know what it was. I thought computer science was about a guy in the basement at his computer," Sheyla says, laughing.
"When I actually started doing computer science, and I realized how imperative it is in today's world, I just started thinking it was really cool and became fascinated by it."
Now, more than a year later, the 15-year-old sophomore is one of Washington Leadership Academy's top computer science students. She has designed several websites, begun work on a virtual reality museum celebrating the life of Abraham Lincoln (a personal hero) and now has her eyes set on a career in cybersecurity with the Central Intelligence Agency.
Sheyla credits her academic evolution to the passionate teachers and curriculum at WLA, a public charter school in Washington, D.C. that opened in 2016. The school is distinguishing itself as a hub for computer science and as one of the few institutions in the country to offer virtual reality studies.
According to a 2016 Gallup survey, African Americans are less likely than white students to have access to computer science classes. Given the fact that WLA's student population is 99% students of color, most of whom are African-American, the school is opening new opportunities in the nation's capital.
"At our school, 100% of students take computer science. It's a core requirement," says Joseph Webb, WLA's founding principal. "We have full-time computer science teachers and all of our kids take computer science, every year."
The Walton Family Foundation provided seed funding for WLA, which welcomed its first cohort of 9th graders in the fall of 2016. With the addition of a new class each fall, the school will expand to 400 students within two years.
The school's founders identified a need in Washington for a public charter school that offered the chance for students from minority communities to excel in the realm of technology and computer science. This year, more than 100 students at WLA are enrolled in advanced classes at WLA, more than half of them girls.
"Our school is really, really passionate about getting girls into computer science," says Sheyla. "It's really rare that you will see a lot of women, especially women of color (in STEM programs)."
Students have access to cutting-edge technology and have all of their courses supplemented with online classwork and materials. Teachers use online tools to help individualize instruction and track each student's progress, charting strengths and weaknesses and allowing them to learn at their best pace. With a 10:1 student-to-teacher ratio, students can lean on educators whenever they need help.
WLA's leaders say their goal is to graduate students who are "fully capable of engaging" in the technology workforce.
"In the next 10 or 20 years, there are going to be millions of jobs that require a deep understanding of computation coding and programming. We want our students to be first in line for those jobs," Joseph says.
"When we think about working with kids in D.C., who come from minority, low-income backgrounds, we think of computer science as a great social leveler. If we can provide them with a high-quality experience to learn computational skills in coding and programming, we think that they're going to have first access to those new jobs."
To develop well-rounded graduates, the school also wants students to be deeply engaged in civic life. They are encouraged to use their skills to advance social justice and discover their social purpose.
"We want (students) to have a deep understanding of what it takes to succeed in civic leadership and to be entrepreneurial and innovative," Joseph says.
While Sheyla Gyles loves having access to cutting-edges technology and taking online classes, she most values her personal interactions with her teachers.
She says her computer science teacher, Jordan Budisantoso, "takes so many hours out of his day to help us, it's ridiculous." In addition to working after school with students on special projects, the teacher has connected Sheyla with businesses needing websites design - jobs she got paid to do.
"This school is special because of the teachers," she says. "They have this passion to get you to be the best version of yourself. It's really inspiring."