Bronx-based program is teaching coding and web development – and changing lives

By Kimberly Hayes Taylor, American Heart Association News

The Knowledge House students pore over tech lessons in class. (Photo courtesy of The Knowledge House)
The Knowledge House students pore over tech lessons in class. (Photo courtesy of The Knowledge House)

Nearly two years after earning a degree in information technology in 2016, Dwayne Levene was struggling to find a job and direction for his life.

His outlook changed when the 28-year-old discovered The Knowledge House, a Bronx, New York-based nonprofit, where he enrolled in coding, web development and other courses he needed to secure a well-paying tech job. He also found career coaching and a funnel of job leads. In short order, he landed a computer science teacher position.

"I graduated from college, and I was just floating around like everybody else looking for work," Levene said. "Now I'm a teacher making a great salary, and I can be a provider for my family. This is the most stable I've ever been in my life."

Levene is exactly the type of student that co-founders Jerelyn Rodriguez and Joe Carrano had in mind when they started The Knowledge House in 2014. The co-founders set out on a mission to close the gap in the education-to-employment pipeline by offering coding and development courses to young Black, Hispanic and other people of color, who historically have not had the resources or have been left out of that pipeline because of inequities stemming from structural racism.

Dwayne Levene takes an office break from the computer science classes he teaches. (Photo courtesy of Dwayne Levene)
Dwayne Levene takes an office break from the computer science classes he teaches. (Photo courtesy of Dwayne Levene)

So, they started by focusing on their neighbors in New York City's Bronx borough.

With so many open positions in the growing technology sector, they recognized The Knowledge House could help lift entire communities out of poverty. They created a channel of talented and capable workers equipped with the technology skills to land positions with starting annual wages around $55,000 or more.

Rodriguez said some students jump from minimum wage jobs to earning nearly $100,000 a year, and available opportunities are abundant. The demand for training also is rising.

"There is an increase in demand for digital skills training, and we see that tech jobs haven't gone anywhere," said Rodriguez, CEO of The Knowledge House. "On the contrary, during COVID we learned that employers are asking for basic digital skills. It means that everyone needs to see themselves as a tech worker and every company needs to see themselves as a tech company."

That's because most companies want employees to know how to use video conferencing and messaging software and applications, Rodriguez said. Doors of opportunity swing open for applicants with tech skills, and they likely don't need a college degree.

The Knowledge House has served nearly 2,000 students with an 85% graduation rate. And it's rapidly growing. Last year, the organization had 100 students with 11 staff members. In 2021, the organization plans to grow to 200 students and 18 employees.

At least 75% of students have secured jobs when they complete the training programs and boot camps.

Rodriguez attributes some of that success to most staff members – about 90% – representing the same races and ethnicities of the students, living in the same communities as students or being program graduates.

"This is built by Black people for Black people or for people of color by people of color," Rodriguez said.

"I'm a Black woman and my co-founder is a Latino. We come from immigrant families and very impoverished communities. We use our career challenges to inform us. We ask ourselves what did not work for us, what is a solution that would have worked for us that will work for our students."

With an unprecedented level of support from corporations and nonprofits in 2020, The Knowledge House is expanding to Atlanta, Los Angeles and Newark, New Jersey, offering free tech training to students ages 14 to 35.

It received a $100,000 grant from the American Heart Association's Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund, which works to reduce social and economic barriers to health equity by investing in small businesses and organizations in under-resourced communities.

The funding will be used to survey the health needs of students, who often reside in communities plagued with health inequities and disparities, to help them overcome health-related barriers to employment, Rodriguez said.

Levene, father of a newborn daughter, raves about the boost The Knowledge House gave him.

"It was such a wonderful experience. Now, if somebody needs something, I'm able to help out," he said. "That means the world to me. I am in this position because I took those steps with The Knowledge House. I'm here and I'm able to provide, which is my main priority."

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