While other students spent their spring break hanging out with friends or hitting the skate park, around 35 high school students from the Southern California region were in class all day, every day learning how to code.

On the last day of coding camp, during Saturday's third annual CODEchella hackathon, students were paired with graphic design, software development, and interface design mentors and tasked with building websites for local businesses.

"It's great to see these kids who gave up their spring breaks to do nerd stuff putting in a 12-hour day on a Saturday to produce something of tangible value to the clients," said mentor Eric Lui from data management company Factual.

CODEchella was designed to encourage community members, educators, and students to engage with coding. Two secondary goals of the event are to demystify coding for students who might not have had exposure to web development before and to develop new talent in STEM fields.

This year's students hailed from several of YouthBuild Charter School of California's Southern California sites. According to YouthBuild's website, the schools serve "students between the ages of 16 to 24 years old who come from low-income families and underserved communities and have previously left or been pushed out of the traditional school system without a diploma."

Lead instructor Emma Cunningham said it was an acute lack of diversity she saw in her experience as a programmer that initially interested in teaching at CODEchella.

"The more I started going to development events and conferences and high-stakes shareholder meetings, I was often the only woman and the only person of color in the room," Cunningham said. "That started signaling something to me that was wrong or off, and I wanted to do something about it….I thought education was a good place to start."

Cunningham's observations about the industry are reflected in statistics compiled by Bloomberg media company. In 2014, data showed that in the U.S., Hispanics and Blacks together make up 9 percent of Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter's workforces on average. Women make up around 30 percent of the corporations' global employees.

YouthBuild Boyle Heights student Amber Duron is a prime example of the talent that Cunningham is trying to develop with CODEchella.

Students Javier Casillas and Amber Duron look on while mentor Fred Tatlyan points out tools to use in photo editing and graphic design. (Rachel Cohrs / Annenberg Media Center)
Students Javier Casillas and Amber Duron look on while mentor Fred Tatlyan points out tools to use in photo editing and graphic design. (Rachel Cohrs / Annenberg Media Center)

While in the traditional public high school system, Duron said she skipped class, got kicked out of multiple schools, and got pregnant. Two weeks after she had her daughter, she knew she had to continue her education.

"What I thought was that if I have my kid, when she is in high school and if she is ditching, and hopefully she doesn't do that, but if she does, I want to tell her school is worth it," Duron said.

After she finishes her high school diploma with YouthBuild this summer, Duron plans to enroll in community college and eventually transfer to a four-year university to pursue a career in web development. She said CODEchella developed her confidence.

"I know if I have the skills, I will go into college more prepared and not scared," Duron said.

Beyond helping students, CODEchella has helped open the eyes of others to potential that in the past, they might not have seen. Fred Tatlyan of Goliath Graffix said he enjoyed having the chance to work with high school students.

"It's been fun and interesting and they are awesome kids," Tatlyan said. "You have an outlook about what the youth are like, but once you interact with them more, you realize maybe they aren't so bad after all. They are passionate, they really want to learn."

The weeklong camp featured engaging lessons on the entire website development process. Students made a meme of Blake Griffin sliding down a hill with penguins to learn Photoshop graphic design skills, and learned the basics of HTML, CSS and JavaScript coding.

Team J.A.T.A., which included Duron and was mentored by Tatlyan, was charged with building a website for a small, local nonprofit consulting business during the hackathon. YouthBuild Boyle Heights student YJavier Casillas said one of the hardest parts of the project was communicating with the client in the planning stage to make sure they understood what she envisioned.

"At first it was awkward because you just don't know what to ask. You have your questions, but trying to say them is hard," Casillas said.

Samantha Walters, a marketing and strategic planning specialist for event sponsor Colocation America said soft skills like client communication are lacking in the current talent pool. Seeing them emphasized during CODEchella, she said, was encouraging.

"The ideal person I could hire is the person that knows their stuff, can talk to the client, and can write about it. It's really hard to find," Walters said. "I could just make money off of just that."

But event organizer Nadia Despenza said that it was never the goal of CODEchella to provide only the skills students could put on a resume.

"I think even beyond coding, it's problem solving," Despenza said. "Coding teaches students to problem solve and persevere. I want them to learn that when times get rough to keep going."

Reporter Rachel Cohrs can be reached by email or through Twitter.