NEW YORK — As gold balloons dropped from the ceiling, the high school graduates at Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies jumped to their feet in jubilation. It was a scene from any high school graduation, but this was taking place in the South Bronx, one of the poorest U.S. neighborhoods.
José Pimienta, a graduate who goes by “pepper” because his last name means that in Spanish, said to remember him because he’ll be a rich investor soon.
One of Pimienta’s teachers — Carlos Acevedo — gave Pimienta and some of his classmates a special graduation gift: Zcash, a cryptocurrency that launched in late 2016.
“This is like stocks. I see it as a way to make money,” said Pimienta, who tracks “crypto” prices on his phone and debates with friends which virtual currency is likely to rise.
Zcash is currently trading at about $150, a fraction of the $6,160 value of bitcoin, the cryptocurrency king. But in this part of the South Bronx, having an investment account of any kind is rare. Acevedo wants his students to learn about saving, investing and crypto, so he started small, giving his students $5 worth of Zcash. But he made them a promise: If they take that little amount and do something innovative with it, he’ll give them more.
“The true value is not the money they are getting,” Acevedo said. “The value is getting them familiar with a new financial infrastructure that will expand over the years.”
To be able to receive the Zcash, students had to set up virtual currency “wallets” on a platform called Jaxx and then send Acevedo a text message with their “public key,” similar to an account number.
Morris, a public high school, is in the poorest congressional district in the United States. Almost every student receives free lunch, and the student body is one-quarter African American and three-quarters Hispanic.
It’s the only district in the country where the median family income is less than $30,000 a year — even worse than the Bronx and Queens district where congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez staged a major upset in the Democratic primary on a platform of Medicare for all and job guarantees.
Many of Acevedo’s students live in government housing and work summer jobs at Staples and fast-food chains. They dream about wealth and have read about bitcoin’s stratospheric 1,900 percent rise last year, but that’s not why their teacher gave them cryptocurrency.
Acevedo wants them to learn more than just buying and selling cryptocurrency as if it were gold or a stock. He wants them to learn how to build apps on the blockchain, the technology underpinning cryptocurrencies, much as a previous generation learned to make apps for the Internet.
Blockchain is exploding in popularity as companies realize it can be used to make every digital record — including music files, legal contracts and personal identification — safer and easier to track. As a result, job postings for blockchain developers have skyrocketed 6,000 percent on freelance website Upwork.
“I’m trying to get blockchain a foothold in the Bronx. I’m trying to get these students in on the ground floor,” said Acevedo, an English teacher at Morris who invests in multiple virtual coins and runs a group about cryptocurrencies. “They could really become a bankable programmer.”
Acevedo thinks the current interest in blockchain is a lot like the gold rush of the mid-1800s. Tens of thousands migrated to California in search of gold, but the people who ended up making the most money were the store owners selling picks and shovels. He urges the students to be the blockchain developers — the modern-day “picks and shovel” sellers.
The message hadn’t fully sunk in yet for most. One student, Daniel Polanco, came into Acevedo’s classroom on one of the last days of school, moaning about how low bitcoin had fallen — it has lost more than half its value this year.
“Do you remember what I told you?” Acevedo asked, knowing Polanco probably didn’t own any bitcoin. Many of the students like to pretend they’re investors.
“Oh, yeah. Shovels and buckets!” Polanco said.
Acevedo shook his head, but he won’t give up on his quest to get the students to see the potential for them to make money.
His first “assignment” for the students this summer is to set up their own store on a site called OpenBazaar, which is similar to eBay but accepts more than 50 cryptocurrencies as payment for items. He doesn’t care what the students sell — artwork, babysitting services or old clothes — but he wants them to become mini-enterpreneurs. He told them he’ll be their first customer.
He hopes the students’ next step is taking programming classes in college and delving into the community of people building the next iteration of the digital world.
This is also a chance to bring more diversity to a field traditionally dominated by young, white men.
The cryptocurrency scene is heavily male-dominated. A poll by SurveyMonkey and the Global Blockchain Business Council in January found that 71 percent of bitcoin investors are male, although nearly half are minorities.
The SurveyMonkey data are echoed in statistics from Onfido, a company that verifies the identities of people who want to participate in an initial coin offering (ICO) when a new coin comes to the market. Onfido compiled data for The Washington Post on 30 recent ICOs it was involved in: Ninety percent of the people buying were male.
“It’s a no-brainer that blockchain will stay. It’s like the Internet. It’s an infrastructure,” said Husayn Kassai, co-founder of Onfido. He doesn’t own cryptocurrencies, but, like Acevedo, he’s a big believer in the revolutionary power of blockchain.
Acevedo introduced his students to bitcoin in an English class early in their senior year. Melanie Vasquez, another graduating senior who participated in Girls Who Code, remembers everyone in the class having their “minds blown.”
Vasquez and several others skipped lunch to return to Acevedo’s classroom and keep discussing bitcoin. They started hanging out after school, asking more questions. Vasquez is doing an online course with Acevedo to learn more about blockchain, and she plans to study computer science at the University at Buffalo.
“It’s the future. I want to be in it,” said Vasquez, the class salutatorian. In her graduation speech, she thanked Acevedo for making her and her classmates “woke.” “I thought I would never get this crypto stuff, but I started reading and following people on Twitter who are heavily involved,” she said.
Acevedo discovered bitcoin several years ago when he was living in Costa Rica, where his wife is from. They found it difficult to transfer money between the United States and Costa Rica and realized that much of the developing world could use a better currency that doesn’t depend on governments that could fall apart.
Acevedo won’t say how much he has invested or made over the years, but it has been at least enough to buy himself a new laptop — and share a bit with some of his favorite students.
“People in the United States don’t understand the revolution this is for the economically disadvantaged,” Acevedo said. “I think about it a lot in this neighborhood.”
The author mentored a student at Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies from 2014 to 2017.