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Career High

Brooklyn’s P-TECH aims to give its kids a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, and the promise of a real job. Will this experiment change high schools nationwide?

For a school that opened its doors in September 2011 and is still years away from producing its first alumni, Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, as it’s known, has gotten plenty of attention—most notably, a mention in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in January. There’s good reason for that. Its proponents—Principal Rashid Davis, foremost among them—believe the innovative program could transform American education. During an interview in his office, Davis points again and again to the signs on his bulletin board depicting the associate’s degrees students will receive if they complete the six-year course of study that combines high school and college, or “hollege,” as he is fond of calling it.

“Success is the students leaving with the associate’s degree,” Davis says. “That is the only definition.” The school offers two associate’s: one in computer information systems, the other in electro­mechanical engineering technology.

“If they do not leave with the associate’s degree, then we’re just another high school. The idea is that the associate’s degree is the modern-day diploma. It’s a nonnegotiable for me. It’s a model of excellence, but it’s also a model of completion. It’s not the attempt; it’s the completion.”

Thinking Big
The school, now finishing up its second year, is the result of a partnership between the New York City Department of Education, IBM, the City University of New York’s Early College Initiative, and the New York City College of Technology (City Tech).

P-TECH was developed with the idea of connecting education to solid career opportunities. A successful collaboration, IBM officials felt, would require the involvement of higher education, and of CUNY in particular, since the first marketable degrees for jobs at IBM and its clients are associate’s degrees in computer science or applied science.

Located in Crown Heights, a diverse, working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, P-TECH shares a campus with two other schools charged with readying students for “real-world” employment. In fact, schools have been providing vocational education within the building’s walls for more than a century. (For more on the building’s history, see the sidebar “Then & Now.”)

IBM, which is providing mentors and hosting student visits, and has “co-­located” a program manager at the school, has promised that P-TECH graduates will be “first in line” for jobs that range from corporate help-desk staffers to systems and data administrators to Web designers, and have starting salaries of as much as $40,000 a year.

Bridging Gaps
Despite IBM’s assurance of job opportunities for P-TECH graduates, Davis, who was previously principal at Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, is not taking anything for granted. Of the school’s 227 students, all of whom were chosen by lottery, 85 percent have attended a six-week Summer Bridge program designed to fill in academic gaps and ease the transition to high school.

“When you’re dealing with an open-admissions population, you have to use every single moment available to help students not just deal with some learning loss but also to connect the dots,” Davis says.

So far, Davis says, 74 students are taking college classes taught by City Tech professors at P-TECH, a number Davis has called “an incredible feat for an open-admissions school.” But Davis is not content to stop there. He makes sure college is front and center from day one. “The first orientation is done at City Tech,” rather than at P-TECH, Davis says, “because I tell them, ‘You’re graduating from college, not high school.’ We set the tone from the first introduction.”

Davis decides each student’s schedule, including electives, in order to make sure there aren’t any transcript gaps that could become handicaps later on. “Your program will be designed by me,” he says. “And that’s in conjunction with a steering committee that includes representatives from IBM, CUNY, and City Tech. There are electives, but the students don’t choose those electives. They have multiple math courses, multiple science courses. But they don’t say, ‘Ooh, I want to take this because it sounds interesting.’ No, because we don’t have the time nor the resources.”

Even if students don’t complete their associate’s degree and opt for a four-year certificate instead, Davis does his best to make sure they’re equipped for what lies ahead. Traditionally, research holds that algebra II and trigonometry are the “gateway courses” students need to head off to college. But, says Davis, “I’m looking at research that says many students of color are not completing STEM degrees because they don’t have the math background.

“If I can get students at college-level calculus, they will be competitive with students who are at the good, better, and best schools taking advanced-placement courses. And they’ll be able to compete with any STEM major.”

Making Connections
That sense of urgency is reinforced by an intensive mentoring system. Each of the 74 students in the college classes peer-mentors two students who are not, and that’s in addition to faculty and IBM mentors. “Some people do not have that professional at home who’s in industry,” Davis says. “I didn’t want a student to be able to give the excuse, ‘I don’t know anyone who works at IBM.’ I wanted them to be able to say, ‘This is why your learning is important.’ Access and equity right away from year one.”

According to Stanley Litow, president of the IBM International Foundation, when the company looked at how its own employees had been trained, it found that workplace readiness skills such as “teaming,” presentation, and knowledge acquisition were even more important than the requisite math, technical, and science skills.

Those skills, says Litow, are on display in P-TECH’s classrooms. “You’ll go into the math class, and you’ll see high-quality writing or presentation; you’ll go into the physics class, and you’ll see a lot more presentation and writing and analysis and thinking,” he says. “So the actual courses in the ninth and tenth grade are richer in terms of their connection between academics and the kinds of workplace skills that people value.”

Litow says the P-TECH framework—which is also the basis for a similar school, Chicago’s Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, with which the company is also collaborating—has the potential to be the wave of the future. One day, it could be considered as significant an educational milestone as mandatory high school or the GI bill. “What we’ve got is this skills crisis,” he says. “We’ve got young people who are coming out with a degree, but they don’t have the skills to be able to take the jobs that are available.”

According to Litow, in New York City in the month of January alone, there were some 300,000 jobs that P-TECH grads would qualify for at such companies as IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and AT&T.

Schools like P-TECH might well transform the economy. “Imagine the difference between having 25 percent of our students completing community college, and getting that up to 50 or 60 percent,” says Litow. “It’s the difference between a young person with an hourly wage of $10 to $15 an hour or a starting wage of $35 to $40 an hour. Just think about the tax revenue, the benefits to the workplace.”

And Litow says he believes the program will be popular with the private sector, with many other corporate partners emerging. “It’s not just the IBMs or the Verizons or the Motorolas—I think there are midsize companies, and ­smaller companies too, who would be willing and interested in playing a mentoring role.”

If mentoring is any measure, IBM’s enthusiasm is clear: It took just four days to recruit mentors for the ninth graders, Litow recalls, and then less than a week to sign up another group for the 10th graders.

At P-TECH, it’s clear that the mentors and the IBM visits are resonating with students. Freshman Nikolas Rassoules, 14, says he has talked with his IBM mentor at length about his aspirations.

“I asked my mentor what he’s doing now and how hard it is, to just experience how it’s going to be in the future and how things are going to be when I go to work and learn,” Rassoules says. “He’s in the field I want to be in. He’s manufacturing chips at IBM. He’s in the clean rooms wearing those clean suits. You can’t have dust on you or anything.”

Rassoules, whose commute from the Bronx to school takes an hour and 45 minutes each day, can recite his future plans on request: “I want to have an entrepreneurial engineering career,” he says. “I want to work at, say, IBM or Microsoft and build a background making those chips. And then I want to design my own company.”

Changing the Trajectory
Both Rassoules and sophomore Kiambu Gall, 15, who lives in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, an hour’s commute to and from school, were happy to be taking college courses, but both bemoaned their lack of free time.

“I don’t have time to go anywhere or socialize,” says Gall, who has mapped out a future as a game developer or programmer.

Not surprisingly, Davis was unsympathetic. “I want to restrict socializing even more,” he says. As a cautionary tale, he related a story about how Gall, a track star, had failed to compete to his potential at a recent meet because the (non-P-TECH) organizers had put him and seven other athletes in two adjoining hotel rooms the night before. “Why would people think that teenagers would not be up all night talking?” Davis asks. “At home you don’t have peers to distract you or peers to play your PS3 or anything like that. How much rest do you think they got? He finished ninth overall. He had no recovery time.”

For Davis, making sure that his students do whatever it takes to live up to their potential is a serious matter. Reciting the statistics—73 percent of his students are African-American males; 85 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—he worries about the assumptions others may have that the kids at P-TECH should not, or will not, succeed.

Getting that degree is critical, even if it doesn’t immediately translate into a job at IBM, Davis says. With an associate’s degree in hand, “they will have the opportunity to earn a million dollars more over their lifetime” than they would without it. “When we look at the current trajectory” for African-American high school students, says Davis, “and we look at the dropout rate, that job opportunity offer at IBM sounds great, but the completion of the postsecondary credential will change generations.”

—Summer 2013—

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