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College & Workforce Readiness

N.Y.C.-IBM Partnership Focuses on Students’ Tech. Skills

By Sean Cavanagh — April 22, 2013 11 min read
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Many schools aspire to give students the skills they need to make it in the workforce. The school known as P-TECH is trying to accomplish that goal in a more direct way—by bringing the workforce to students.

The Pathways in Technology Early College High School, located in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, in New York City, offers an unusual variation on the public-private partnerships that have taken hold in districts in very different forms around the country.

The school has worked directly with one of the nation’s best-known technology companies, IBM, and with public universities in the city, which together have helped shape a curriculum and academic approach that allows students to graduate from high school with an associate degree—and possibly with a jump-start on a job at the company or elsewhere in a technology-related field.

IBM’s involvement is not limited to helping hone the curriculum. The company, with headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., is arranging to have its employees individually mentor each of the school’s 230 students, providing them with everything from help with academic lessons to broader advice on career and life goals. And it has promised to give P-TECH students priority in getting jobs at the company when they graduate.

P-TECH was founded just two years ago, and so it could be years before the program is mature enough to tell whether its grades “9-14" model is meeting its ambitions.

But school leaders and policymakers in other school districts, and at the national level, are already betting on the P-TECH design. The school’s boosters include President Barack Obama, who touted P-TECH’s approach in his State of the Union address this year as a model for aligning K-12 skills with employer demands.

Whether the program’s model can be replicated in other parts of the country, where the pools of employers are different, remains to be seen. And it’s unclear whether having one company so directly involved in shaping the focus of a school makes sense, academically, or in meeting workforce demands.

But P-TECH administrators, and college and industry officials involved in designing the school, say they already see evidence that the connection the high school provides to college and to employers is a powerful hook for teenagers.

“Having the industry piece at the end, to say to them ‘this is a possibility,’ is a great motivator,” said Rashid Ferrod Davis, the school’s principal.

The Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, in New York City, offers students a curriculum in core academic subjects and gives them the opportunity to earn an associate degree in applied science from the New York City College of Technology. From Left, Alec Miller, 16, Brigette Luboa, 16, work on a project during a computer graphics art class at the school.

P-TECH’s model essentially ensures that “automatically, you are a college student,” he said. “We have shortened their anxiety [about college] from day one.”

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg first announced plans to create the school that would become P-TECH in 2010. A steering committee made up of representatives from the city’s department of education, IBM, the City University of New York, and the New York City College of Technology (which is part of the CUNY system) and others joined Mr. Davis in crafting the school’s academic focus and structure.

The model they established created a school that offers students a curriculum in core academic subjects, but also provides them with an associate degree in applied science, in either computer information systems or electromechanical engineering technology, which is awarded by the College of Technology. The college had a major role, along with IBM officials, in drawing up the curriculum and courses.

Students at the school pay no costs, either in tuition or fees, in taking courses in pursuit of the degree. Organizers expect that students typically will complete the program in six years, though they could finish sooner.

And P-TECH officials believe graduates will be prepared to enter the workforce. School leaders also say students will be ready to pursue bachelor’s degrees, if they choose that route.

P-TECH is housed on the campus of Paul Robeson High School, a public school that has struggled academically and is scheduled to be closed by the city. About 85 percent of P-TECH’s students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and the same percentage is African-American.

P-TECH is part of the School Improvement Grant program, a federal effort aimed at turning around low-performing, economically disadvantaged schools. That program has a mixed record of success, despite a substantial federal investment. (“SIG Program Sees Mixed Results In First Outing, Ed. Dept. Finds,” Dec. 5, 2012.)

The school has an extended day and an extended school year, features that have become increasingly common in other public school environments, including at turnaround sites and in charter schools.

Company Connections

Mayor Bloomberg, who controls the New York City school system, has given principals considerable autonomy in personnel decisions and other policies. P-TECH’s Mr. Davis says that authority has helped him direct school resources to where they’re needed most—such as by increasing the teaching time devoted to certain subjects (and the compensation for educators putting in extra time in those classes), particularly for students who need extra help.

IBM and university officials worked with P-TECH administrators to map the skills needed for an entry-level job in the technology industry onto the school’s curriculum. Each student is also expected to follow a personalized academic pathway, based on his or her academic strengths, weaknesses, and interests.

Faculty members from the school’s university partners teach college-level classes. More than 70 students at the school are taking a college course now, a number that will increase over time, said Mr. Davis.

P-TECH students watch as IBM Project Manager Mike Todd drops an egg to see if it will break, during an exercise with mentors on a field trip to an IBM facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

IBM also has a more direct involvement in students’ lives. The mentors provided by the company are expected to meet with students two or three times a year, and they also interact with them through an online platform established by the school.

Mentors can help students with individual assignments and projects, but the hope is that they will also shape students’ thoughts about their careers, said Temeca Simpson, the IBM liaison at the school and a full-time employee of the company who works on campus.

The mentors help students understand “where they could potentially be in four, five, six, seven years,” said Ms. Simpson, a former teacher.

For one of those mentors, Karen Thompson, the pairing with a student named Nyaisa Galloway, 16, gave her the chance to tutor a teenager on the skills needed to land a good job, and to succeed in it—knowledge that many young people too often lack, she said.

Ms. Thompson, a project manager at IBM, said she’s given the P-TECH student advice on issues ranging from test preparation to the importance of getting a college degree. She’s also determined to convey a more personal message to the student, who, like Ms. Thompson, is African-American.

“I want her to understand that there’s nothing off limits to her,” said Ms. Thompson. And if the teenager wants to pursue a career in a math, science, or technology field, she will know “what that really entails, and ‘these are the steps I should take.’ ”

The student she’s paired with said the idea of obtaining a college degree through P-TECH was a major attraction to her, as was the opportunity to get experience in hands-on, technical fields. Ms. Galloway says her adult mentor has urged her to prepare academically—and to persist.

“The first thing she says is never give up,” said Ms. Galloway, who is in her second year at the school. “Always work toward your goals.”

When students complete the program, they will be first in line for jobs at IBM, said Stanley S. Litow, the company’s vice president for corporate citizenship and corporate affairs. While the company can’t legally make a promise to hire students, it will place a strong value on their degrees, he said.

IBM also wants to see the P-TECH model grow. It has developed a “playbook,” a written guide designed to help schools replicate the model.

A number of policymakers have committed to testing that approach.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has announced plans to establish 10 new schools modeled after P-TECH around New York state; New York City officials plan to establish two of their own.

The 403,000-student Chicago school system opened five such schools last year.

In Idaho, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, a Boise philanthropy, has said it will give financial support to proposals from districts, community colleges, charter schools, and other applicants to create schools based on the P-TECH blueprint. Some of those schools could be located in rural communities, and they could receive awards of up to $5 million apiece.

Obama Touts Partnership

In his address to Congress in February, President Obama pointed to countries such as Germany that have created arrangements between schools and industries that provide high-school-age students with strong technical training. Schools like P-TECH offer a promising domestic version of that school-to-work alignment, he said.

“We need to give every American student opportunities like this,” Mr. Obama said.The president’s German example is apt, in that the P-TECH model is akin to the arrangements found in education systems in that country and other parts of Europe, where employers have taken a strong role in providing technical training to secondary students, said Greg Butler, the senior director of education strategic partnerships at Microsoft Corp., in Redmond, Wash.

In some cases, employers in Germany and other countries go so far as to stage classes and offer students training on job sites, said Mr. Butler, who is also chairs the board of directors for the Partnership Brokers Association, a London-based organization that seeks to arrange partnerships between public- and private-sector groups.

Student Dahneisha Chisolm, 16, works in a geometry class at P-TECH.

Mr. Butler also likened P-TECH’s integration of the private sector into the curriculum to the approach used in many U.S. community colleges, where advisory boards often work with college officials to make suggestions about how curricula and courses can be adapted to meet local workforce demands.

But the P-TECH model is also a reflection of how public-private partnerships have evolved over time, Mr. Butler said. Fifteen or 20 years ago, many schools’ and companies’ favored brand of partnership was to have a business sponsor a program or education effort—an arrangement that was not likely to help schools with their core academic challenges, he said.

Over time, K-12 partnerships have become much more focused, Mr. Butler said, with businesses providing schools with specific services or expertise. Companies might directly provide workforce preparation, or supply employees who have scientific or technical skills to teach courses or help educators with their classes.

In effective partnerships, schools and businesses are “co-creators” of ideas, each accountable for making sure a project’s goals are met, Mr. Butler said. In that situation, if a school project fails, it’s as much of a blow to the company as if one of its products falls short, he said.

Mr. Butler said P-TECH carries that kind of implicit accountability for IBM, in that the company “is putting its name out there” and has a vested interest in making sure the school’s graduates “aren’t coming up dry,” as measured by success in college and the job market.

Potential Downsides

David T. Conley, a professor of educational policy at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, also likened P-TECH’s work to that of European-style work-training programs for students, as well as to U.S.-based career academies, which are typically schools organized around business themes that combine academic coursework with job skills.

While partnerships between businesses and schools in the United States are common, the distinction at P-TECH is that the connection between the school and the employer is especially direct, on many levels, said Mr. Conley, who has extensively studied the skills needed to prepare students for college.

But there are potential downsides to a partnership like the one arranged at P-TECH, Mr. Conley said.

One risk is that individual companies such as IBM will have too much influence in shaping the academic focus of a school to meet their own workforce needs, he said, at the expense of students’ focusing on other areas that might prepare them for a broader range of careers.

A second problem, Mr. Conley said, could emerge if schools like P-TECH encourage teenagers to stick to one particular career path and academic focus, even if they decide after a few years that the chosen path isn’t for them. The pressure on students to hold to their original plan can be implicit rather than direct, he said.

“The exit path out of these programs can be problematic,” Mr. Conley said. Even if school officials strive to avoid creating inflexible options for students, “there’s a tension when you have a technical focus and you want to get a [more] general academic focus in there.”

Mr. Davis, P-TECH’s principal, responded that his school’s students will be exposed to a range of skills, including those identified in city and state standards, not just those favored by IBM.

While he said in an email that “theme-specific high schools need to be true to the vision and mission of their themes,” he added that his responsibility, as P-TECH evolves, is to ensure that students who want to leave the program by their fourth year have the skills to gain admission to a college of their choice.

The school’s academic focus is “bigger than IBM,” Mr. Davis said, and will deliver instruction that gives students useful workforce skills and the ability to make it in college without remediation.

At the same time, “many of the skills that IBM’s skills-mapping bring are the same that are needed to be successful at the college,” he said.

He added: “Students are not being steered into dead-end technical skills.”

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Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as Industry Shapes Goals and Tech Focus at N.Y.C. School


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