It’s not unusual to find parents volunteering in local classrooms; it’s a little out of the ordinary to meet a school volunteer who has no particular ties to a campus, other than an interest in education and a desire to help kids.
Such is the case with Jim Verhulst, a semi-retired Boston transplant who moved to the Pacheco Elementary School neighborhood in San Luis Obispo four years ago and offered to volunteer at the campus.
Since then, he has helped first-graders with Spanish reading (Pacheco is a dual language immersion school, where all students learn English and Spanish); assisted with a variety of technology-related projects; and, in his latest venture, launched an after-school computer coding class for kids.
Verhulst, 70, has a background in engineering and programming and works part time for InPress Technologies, a biomedical startup and Cal Poly HotHouse project that developed a device to prevent postpartum hemorrhaging.
We probably don’t need to say this, but Verhulst is full of ideas.
According to the U.S. census, women made up only 20 percent of the computer programming workforce in 2013.
Principal Rick Mayfield always knows when a new one is coming: Verhulst approaches him with the question, “Hey, do you have a minute?”
Among his projects: Verhulst revived old, surplus computers that became “loaners” for Pacheco families that lacked home computers; Mayfield estimates there are about 15 computers on loan.
When Verhulst came across an article in The Tribune about a Google program to encourage girls to get into commuter programming, he was on board. He pitched the idea to Mayfield, and he enlisted a couple of colleagues to join in the venture: Darren Kraker, a software engineer at Cal Poly, and Amy Degenkolb, who works with Verhulst at InPress. Shelly Stevenson, who runs the computer lab at Pacheco, also was part of the team.
In a nutshell, the Google coding class teaches basic programming in a fun and painless way that eschews complicated-looking text. Judging by the response of Pacheco students, it’s a method that works.
“You go in (the computer lab) and you think nothing is happening,” Verhulst said. “They’re all glued to the screens, with their headphones on.”
Google is among many organizations trying to promote interest in coding among minority students and girls, who are seriously underrepresented in the field. (According to the U.S. census, women made up only 20 percent of the computer programming workforce in 2013.)
Some of the programs focus solely on girls, but Pacheco decided to open the four-week class to boys and girls. Sign-ups were slow at first, but when the doors opened for the first class, 30 students were waiting for 15 slots. Students who pre-registered got to attend; others were put on a waiting list.
Teachers have a lot going on in the classroom these days. To ask them to do a quality afternoon program is really difficult … Volunteers make that happen.
Pacheco Elementary School Principal Rick Mayfield
Fifth-grader Rosacassandra Santana, 10, got one of spaces.
“I wanted to learn more about how to do art on the computer,” she said, demonstrating how she could make a cute little penguin move across the screen.
Bryan Brito, a sixth-grader, is mostly interested in game design — he has an Xbox at home. Like Rosacassandra, he hopes to learn more programming in the future and would consider a career in the field.
Brito rated the class “very cool” — a sentiment shared by his classmates. That’s great news to Verhulst, who’s happy to see computer programming shed its “geeky” reputation.
He’s already planning a second class that will focus on fashion design.
He’s not alone in trying to pique student interest in the subject; a group of Pacheco parents is putting together a home-based computer coding class, using a different curriculum.
Without volunteers like them, Principal Mayfield doubts the school would be able to offer such programs.
“Teachers have a lot going on in the classroom these days. To ask them to do a quality afternoon program is really difficult. … Volunteers make that happen.”
We don’t doubt it, and that’s why we honor not only Jim Verhulst, but also all volunteers sharing their time and talents with students enrolled in our local schools.
We’re proud to recognize each of you as a Tribune Unsung Hero.
How does it work?
For a demonstration of the Google computer coding curriculum, go to www.madewithcode.com/projects.
Unsung Hero series
Although The Tribune seeks to celebrate our community's quiet heroes throughout the year, it's especially appropriate during the holidays, when we pause to give thanks, gather with friends and family, and share the warmth and light that brightens our lives.
Unsung heroes are people who practice the Golden Rule and are passionate about their causes but seek no return for their actions other than the satisfaction that comes with helping others.
By highlighting individuals who unselfishly apply their energy and skills to lighten the burden of others, we hope, first, to offer these community heroes the appreciation they deserve; second, to let those who could use the help know of available resources; and, third, to inspire others who are able to help in whatever way they can.