Exploration High’s Amazon Teacher of the Year opens pathways for students

Cesar Barreto, a computer science teacher at Exploration Academy in the South Bronx, was one of 10 teachers nationwide to be recognized as a 2021 Amazon Future Engineer Teacher of the Year.
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When computer science teacher Cesar Barreto first started at Exploration Academy High School on 1619 Boston Road 12 years ago, there were few opportunities for students to study computer science.

“There wasn’t really anything offered in computer science, so I had to do some work and training on how to put myself in the position to start building opportunities for students to get into the field,” Barreto told to the Times-Reporter on Wednesday.

Today, Barreto has witnessed the students of his yearly offered AP Computer Science course use coding and other skills to develop apps, reimagine video games and web-based platforms, and envision a career in one of the most lucrative, yet underrepresented professions in the country.

Barreto was recognized nationally this month by tech giant Amazon for his work in advancing computer science initiatives at the South Bronx-based school. Barretto was one of 10 teachers nationwide to be awarded the 2021 Amazon Future Engineer Teacher of the Year, which recognizes educators in computer science and robotics serving underrepresented communities.

Reflecting on his Teacher of the Year honor, Barreto said that the award is validation for both himself and his computer student scholars.

“For our South Bronx kids, if they don’t see it, they don’t believe it,” he said. “When we first started offering AP Computer Science courses, they didn’t think they needed it. But now it’s providing them paid internships and opportunities to be in a field that allows them to develop their own apps and programs.”

For being a recipient of the award, Barreto will receive a prize of $30,000 — with $25,000 reserved for expanding computer science and robotics initiatives at Explorations Academy. The school and Amazon representatives confirmed with The Bronx Times that the prize money will be used to secure new equipment for their computer science classes.

A Colombian native, Barreto began his education journey at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College before earning an associate’s degree, before later earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biology at City University of New York (CUNY).

When being recruited by Susana Hernandez, former principal at Exploration Academy, he was hired because of the school’s desire to hire more male, Hispanic, bilingual science teachers as role models at the school.

Barreto said that students who take his AP Computer Science courses — which teach a variety of skills from coding, block-based programming and software development skills— have allowed them to enter a field that has traditionally been lacking representation.

“I’ve seen students get offered paid internships and getting paid $15 an hour at some places,” he said. “I’ve also seen some students start careers at the MTA, web-based companies, and they get a sense that they know they can succeed in the [STEM] field.’”

According to data from Pew Research Center on federal employment and education, Black and Hispanic adults are less likely to earn degrees in STEM than other degree fields, and they continue to make up a lower share of STEM graduates relative to their share of the population. 

Roughly 9% of Black workers are in the STEM field, for Hispanic workers it’s only 8%. Women are also seeing an uneven representation in the STEM field, according to Pew. Despite women accounting for 50% of the workforce, their participation in the field is heavily overrepresented among health-related jobs, and not physical science jobs.

For Barreto, opening a pathway for his students — many of whom are Black, Hispanic and female —  into one of the nation’s most lucrative fields is an evergreen goal.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the median annual wage for computer and information technology occupations around $91,250, which is more than twice the median annual wage for all occupations.

“It was proof that if they wanted to work and they wanted to learn [in the STEM field], they could do it,” he said. “This is a field that is paying at an average of $91,000, and they couldn’t believe how much money they could get if they graduated with a degree in computer science.”

In Barreto’s 12 years at Exploration Academy, he’s seen computer science-based initiatives flourish with the development of clubs such as Girls Who Code and opportunities for his students to collaborate with computer science students at his alma maters Hostos College and CUNY.

While the recognition as one of the best computer science teachers in the nation is “rewarding” according to Barreto, he said fostering a love for the world of computer science has been an ultimate dream.

“It’s been my goal and my continuing vision to show my students that a degree in computer science will pay off down the road,” he said. “I’ve seen my students blossom, explore new possibilities through coding and app development, and our kids here in the South Bronx are proving that their hard work and creativity will pay off.”

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