TOPICS > Education > American Graduate

Six years for high school? Why two extra years is catching on

BY Mike Fritz  April 9, 2014 at 11:20 AM EDT
P-TECH principal Rashid Ferrod Davis says offering his students free college tuition is a "game changer." Photo by Mike Fritz / PBS NewsHour

P-TECH principal Rashid Ferrod Davis says offering his students free college tuition is a “game changer.” Photo by Mike Fritz / PBS NewsHour

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — A new six-year Brooklyn high school has been called the future of vocational education in America. TIME Magazine recently profiled the school’s concept on its cover with the headline, “The Diploma That Works,” and when President Barack Obama visited the campus here in October he called it “outstanding.”

Not bad for a school that has yet to graduate a single student.

The hype over Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, has continued to grow since 2011 after a public-private partnership was unveiled between IBM, the New York City Department of Education and City University of New York, establishing the school in a run-down section of central Brooklyn. At the heart of the model’s design is giving low-income students the chance to earn an Associate’s degree, essentially acquiring two years of free college tuition.

This report will air on the PBS NewsHour.

Thus far, P-TECH has adroitly navigated the political waters of New York City education. It is a public school (created as part of a federal turnaround initiative) that uses an open-lottery for enrollment and does not require academic screenings prior to admission.

Students attend year-round for up to six years and receive extensive training in science, technology, engineering and math — known as STEM skills. The effort is designed to instill core job abilities that students are likely to need for entry-level employment and pivot away from more generalized educational approaches.

“Youth unemployment rates are at the highest level since the end of World War II,” IBM’s Stanley Litow said, “and the high-school diploma no longer prepares someone for a middle class wage.”

Litow, a former deputy schools chancellor for New York City, who is now the president of IBM’s philanthropic arm, helped develop the school’s curriculum and has since overseen the creation of similar schools in both New York and Chicago.

College courses begin as early as the 10th grade and instruction consistently shifts between high-school and university-level classes. Graduates are expected to leave with both a high-school diploma and an Associate of Applied Science degree. New York state provides per-pupil funding for all six years.

P-TECH students have the option of majoring in either computer systems technology or electromechanical engineering technology, and they take many of their university level classes on the campus of New York City College of Technology.

Columbia University’s Melinda Mechur Karp has studied a number of early college programs and believes that graduates from P-TECH are likely to be more successful in college than average high-school students, because they are being forced to prepare for university life.

“They actually get treated like a college student; they are handed a syllabus and told to follow it,” Karp said.

Yet the extensive class load can be a lot to handle for teenagers and leaves little time for leisure. Students often take double periods of their high-school classes so that they can move onto college courses more quickly.

“The question is what am I not giving up?” junior Cierra Copeland said with a smile. “Free time — I don’t know what that is anymore.”

Copeland said she often spends most of her nights and weekends studying but that the sacrifice is worth it. She’s working toward acquiring her bachelor’s and master’s degree at the University of Central Florida in electromechanical engineering.

IBM invested $500,000 to get P-TECH off the ground, but Litow said his company now only donates “sweat equity” to the school, which comes in the form of internship opportunities and mentors for every student. Litow has also promised that P-TECH students will be first in line for entry-level positions with the company once they graduate.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced that 16 new P-TECH schools will open their doors across the state in September, leveraging the support of other businesses to focus on areas including manufacturing, clean technology and health care.

President Obama also announced a $100 million competitive grant program late last year, encouraging similar partnerships between high-schools, private industry and U.S. universities.

You can see the full report on the PBS NewsHour.