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Code Labs: A test of persistence with a major payoff

Darwinism and computer coding: What’s the connection?

In Code Labs, a program developed by efactory partner Codefi, only the participants with the most determination will survive.

Dramatic? Sure. But it’s designed to be a rigorous education in the world of coding, somewhere on the spectrum between a coding boot camp and a full degree in IT.

Code Labs teaches participants skills beyond the theoretical or practical. It combines both through a free, academic-year-long experience.

Lifelong learner Sarah Clayton, born with a naturally curious streak from a family of entrepreneurs, seized this opportunity and is excited about the possibilities.

“I’m open to any opportunities, because obviously we don’t know what the future holds,” Clayton said. “One thing I’m pretty good at is adapting, learning and growing.”

Throughout her childhood, Clayton witnessed her hardworking parents’ work ethic, and it’s something that she claims seeped into her soul.

She enjoys the thrill of a challenge and now, just a month shy of completing Code Labs, she shares her journey. 

Giving guidance to SPS students

In her day to day, Clayton is a college and career specialist through Springfield Public Schools. There, she shines a light on options that exist post-graduation through programs like Naviance. Naviance provides tools and resources to help guide students through the college and career planning process.

It’s a bit ironic, since during her formative school years, she didn’t feel there were many options. This feeling escalated because she was unmotivated at school.

“Nobody helped guide me. I don’t remember engaging with my counselor or teachers, or having somebody to ask questions,” she said.

Now many years later, she provides that connection point for students in the SPS system.

“Looking back, I can see how it’s all linked. That’s ultimately why I fell in love with teaching. I was providing support and guidance for student success by helping them gain confidence and starting to take action and ownership of their future plans and goals.”

Testing the waters

After high school, Clayton negotiated a deal with her parents: She’d go to cosmetology school, earn a paycheck and help pay for her living expenses. Meanwhile, she’d also reach for her parent’s goal for her – a college degree.

She started at Ozarks Technical Community College, then began to pursue an international business degree at Missouri State University. While she enjoyed business, and in particular her study abroad experience, she didn’t know how she would apply an international business degree while living in the Springfield area, where she wanted to plant her roots.

“My parents and teachers stressed education, but they didn’t really talk too much about work experience,” Clayton said, leaving her a bit untethered even after graduation. “So, I went on a soul search, trying to figure out what I wanted to do.”

Filled with uncertainty, she began teaching at a local cosmetology school and student teaching, where she discovered a passion for giving people relatable skills.

She headed back to school, finally with a strong sense of purpose – to obtain her master’s degree in education at Missouri State. While completing her practicum, she began teaching marketing and business courses at Central High School.

GO CAPS: Voyage of self-discovery

After a few years in the traditional classroom setting, an opportunity arose that felt kismet. Thanks to a strong foundation in business and interests in entrepreneurship, she was selected to teach juniors and seniors in the Greater Ozarks Center for Advanced Professional Studies program, or GO CAPS.

“It was the moment. I was ready for the next thing,” she said. “I was also wanting to learn more and do more for the students because I realized where my passion was.”

Housed in the efactory, students in GO CAPS encounter unique curriculum that is customized to students’ interests. Clayton generally focused on marketing, business and technology industries and provided students with the opportunity to explore career paths, gain real-world experiences and develop professional skills.

Students spend half-days, five days a week, in this off-site experience, diving deep into projects with ties to community organizations or employers.

All this is done with the goal of helping students transition from high school to post-secondary education or employment.

“You live vicariously through them at times,” Clayton said. “It’s so exciting when you see the passion and the opportunities that they get. I am so proud of my students from my years in GO CAPS and wish I’d had something like that when I was younger.”

The teachers in GO CAPS must be nimble, quick on their feet and adaptable, while also identifying their own knowledge gaps.

Initially, a GO CAPS class project opened Clayton’s eyes to her interest in learning code. So, she took the chance to learn alongside her students. Slowly over time, she saw her skills and interest grow, leading her to take a leap of faith.

Code Labs cracks opens opportunities

Is Code Labs a steppingstone to career transformation? For many, yes. Participants often see huge increases in salary as they move positions post-Code Labs.

But for Clayton? She’s always looking for her next step in self-discovery.

When she realized she was ready to exit the GO CAPS program and move into her new role with SPS, she spoke with Rachel Anderson, executive director of efactory, about this free-of-charge coding course program.

“Rachel encouraged me. I didn’t think it was for me. I had a picture in my head of who the classes were geared toward, and it wasn’t me,” Clayton said.

But it turns out she was wrong. After completing the application, online intro coding courses and interview, she became a Code Labs student.

It’s a commitment, she says, noting that between the classes and the projects she works on at home, she’s probably clocking around 20 hours per week in addition to her full- and part-time jobs. The coursework is difficult, but Clayton remains unphased by the challenge.

“Our teacher always makes sure to reassure us. He’ll say to the class, ‘You’re frustrated. This is fast. But think about it. What you’re learning right now would take maybe a year for a professor to talk about it in class, or maybe four years!’”

Clayton’s Code Labs class has dwindled due to the intensity of the work; however, the like-minded students and the sense of accomplishment when an ‘a-ha’ moment occurs drives her to persist and achieve.

“I love it, but where this experience is leading is a bit up in the air, because obviously I love what I do. I love being with students, connecting them and providing those opportunities. How can I mesh those two together?”

The real full-circle moment for Clayton occurred when she encouraged one of her former GOCAPS students to apply to Code Labs as well.

“She’s a great kid, so bright and she has that growth mindset,” Clayton said.

They decided to be “accountability buddies” and they have helped push each other through.

While the demographics, hopes and backgrounds for the individuals in Code Labs varies, one thing unites them.

“Those that complete the program have the world of possibilities cracked open to them,” Clayton said.