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Students stick around for two years of college at innovative Brooklyn high school

April 10, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
At Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., students are expected to attend for six years, earning both a high school diploma and a two-year Associate’s degree. P-TECH and other schools based on the same model aim to give students from low-income families a head start on college with free, career-oriented coursework. Hari Sreenivasan tells the story.
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PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

GWEN IFILL: Our second education story is about a Brooklyn high school that has not yet graduated its first class, but it’s being closely watched for its approach to providing lower-income students with college tuition and the special skills to get a job — one of its distinct features, a lot more time in the classroom.

President Obama sang its praises again this week and announced two more schools like it will be opened.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story as part of our American Graduate project, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When it comes to high school, should six years be the new four? It is a question that Cletus Andoh has times to think about every day as he rides New York City subway from his home in the Bronx to his school in Brooklyn, a journey that takes him an hour-and-a-half each way.

Cletus is a junior at Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH. P-TECH is a six-year public school where students like Cletus are expected to leave with a high school diploma and a two-year associate of applied science degree, basically finishing community college for free.

CLETUS ANDOH, Junior, P-TECH: An associate degree means a start. It’s a start to what I want to do with my future, where I want to go.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Cierra Copeland, also a junior at P-TECH, says she was ready to be challenged, and having the opportunity to take college courses as early as the 10th grade was the push she needed.

CIERRA COPELAND, Junior, P-TECH: I came to P-TECH. They gave me not a push, but a shove. And they shoved me into it. And it’s beneficial to me. I feel like, for me, it’s been a learning experience. It taught me to grow up faster. It taught me to prioritize.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Giving students from low-income families the chance at free college tuition was the brainchild of a public-private partnership developed by IBM, the New York City Education Department, and the City University of New York.

STANLEY LITOW, V.P. of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs, IBM: The job opportunities of the 21st century require a level of skill that is far beyond a simple high school diploma.

HARI SREENIVASAN: IBM’s Stanley Litow, a former deputy schools chancellor for New York City, helped starts Brooklyn’s P-TECH in 2011, and has since overseen the creation of seven similar schools in New York and Chicago.

Students have longer school days, attend classes year-round, and get hands-on training in job skills that companies like IBM say their entry-level employees often lack.

STANLEY LITOW: We need those people to have the problem-solving skills and the technical skills and the writing skills and presentation skills. If we don’t do something different about transforming high school in America, we’re going to be in big trouble. The U.S. is not going to be competitive.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Schools like P-TECH, which has only been admitting students for three years, are attracting more attention, and last year received an endorsement from President Barack Obama.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What is going on here at P-TECH is outstanding. And I’m not — and I’m excited to see it for myself.

(APPLAUSE)

HARI SREENIVASAN: After the president visited P-TECH last October, he announced a $100 million competitive grant program, encouraging similar partnerships between high schools, private industry and universities; 16 new P-TECH schools will open across New York in September and leverage the support of other businesses to focus on areas, including manufacturing, clean technology, and health care.

More than 1,500 students applied to Brooklyn’s P-TECH last fall, but the school was only able to admit 144 ninth graders.

RASHID FERROD DAVIS, Principal, P-TECH: Our kids are the everyday, average New York City student. We’re just giving them the different opportunity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rashid Ferrod Davis is P-TECH’s founding principal. Davis says his students are chosen entirely by lottery and come from all five boroughs of New York. The school, he says, was started with one goal in mind.

RASHID FERROD DAVIS: It’s how do you make sure that we can diversify the work force with students who are not generally on a path to think of themselves as either college or career-ready. And so there is no academic screening. There is no type of tests for admissions.

The idea, if you are interested, we will help make you academically strong and prepared, so, that way, you can have that pathway from high school through college to industry.

HARI SREENIVASAN: IBM initially invested $500,000 to get P-TECH off the ground, money spent to develop the curriculum and provide teacher training. But, from now on:

STANLEY LITOW: All IBM is investing is our time and talent.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And when it comes to paying for the additional two years built into the model, the state of New York picks up that tab.

The first P-TECH is located in a rundown section of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, surrounded by low-income housing. It was created as part of a federal turnaround initiative that is also phasing out of poor-performing high school in the same building.

Principal Davis called the two years of free college tuition a game-changer for his students.

RASHID FERROD DAVIS: Once you have the two years under your belt, you have a better foundation to complete the four-year degree. And so this becomes very, very important. So that free degree can be a great sense of motivation for families.

HARI SREENIVASAN: P-TECH students take some of their university-level courses on the campus of New York City College of Technology, part of the City University of New York. But they’re also eased into the rigor by having professors teach at the high school.

Bonne August is the provost at City Tech. She’s optimistic that the design is working, despite the fact that it is new and relatively untested.

BONNE AUGUST, Provost, New York City College of Technology: I personally am waiting until we have graduated not just one group of students, but several groups of students. These are not easy programs. They’re very challenging programs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: IBM sees the associate’s degree as a good starting point, but they believe more support is needed for students to learn about the world of work, so they offer internships and provide mentors for every P-TECH student.

Shilpa Menezes, a product line manager for the company, was paired with Cierra Copeland three years ago. Most of their interactions are done online, and Menezes says she was initially surprised by the types of questions she received from Cierra.

SHILPA MENEZES, Product Line Manager, IBM: What are my interests? What kind of books do I read? What do I do when I’m a little frustrated at work? Don’t you have issues at work? How do you manage? So, I have seen her grow and be very mature in her conversations with me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Cierra, who is focusing on electromechanical engineering, says that Menezes, along with P-TECH, have opened her eyes to the possibly of a career in fields that have been dominated by men for years.

CIERRA COPELAND: I can make something out of myself with this degree, so that I’m not just another stereotype, because that is a stereotype, that all women cook and they don’t build, and they don’t wire, and they don’t program.

HARI SREENIVASAN: IBM’s Stanley Litow stopped short of promising jobs to P-TECH students once they graduate, but he did say they will have the skills that the company is looking for to fill entry-level positions that include software specialists and tech support representatives.

STANLEY LITOW: Over the next 10 years, there are going to be 14 million new jobs created for students with those kinds of credentials and those kind of skills. If they’re through a P-TECH program that we are involved in, they are going to be first in line for jobs at IBM.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Cletus Andoh wants to attend MIT after he graduates, then hopefully medical school, which would please his mother.

HELENA ASAAH: Education is very important to me because I didn’t get that opportunity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Helena Asaah moved the family from Ghana to New York, so her children could get a better education. When her son got into P-TECH, she was thrilled the school offered free college credit.

HELENA ASAAH: I want him to be some better person, like maybe a doctor.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But, if that doesn’t work out, Cletus already has a plan B.

CLETUS ANDOH: I will always have that associate degree as a backup, so I can go into the technology field, get a bachelor’s or master’s and just keep going.

RASHID FERROD DAVIS: There are two specific associate degrees.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Educators from across the globe are regularly visiting P-TECH to see if lessons learned here can be replicated.

GWEN IFILL: You can follow our American Graduate reporting team on Twitter, where they shared more television on P-TECH. We rounded up those resources, and you can find them on the Rundown.