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Pathway from poverty: Pioneering program helps low-income children get degrees, IBM jobs

By the time Trudon Exter walks through the metal detectors at the front doors of Brooklyn's Paul Robeson High School, he's been commuting for more than two hours. To get to school by 8 a.m. from his home in Queens, he rides two buses and a subway through some of New York City's toughest neighborhoods.

Trudon, 14, is a little small for his age and carries an enormous backpack stuffed with school supplies, snacks and a change of clothes for gym class. There are fleeting moments when he wishes he was back in Queens in his neighborhood school's ninth-grade class with his old friends and not in Brooklyn. But some of his friends have already given up on high school. As he walks the three blocks between the subway and the school he sees kids about his age stumbling out of the neighborhood's abandoned row houses. He wants something better.

To help kids like Trudon reach their goals, a college in New York City has teamed up with IBM to create an innovative program that fuses high school and community college under one roof. Called Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, the school preps students for tech jobs at IBM with starting salaries of about $40,000. The first of its kind in America, the grade 9-14 school employs a curriculum mapped backward from workplace needs at IBM to help low-income kids beat a dreary pile of statistics that show students from poor neighborhoods — especially black males — face long odds for finishing high school and getting into college.

P-Tech, and other schools like it popping up across the country, seek to solve a decades-old problem in America's inner cities: high school students from low-income families drop out of school at six times the rate of their peers, and only 9 percent of low-income teens are employed, according to a 2011 Harvard University study. For every 100 low-income students who start high school, only 65 will receive high school diplomas, and only 45 of those enroll in college.

P-Tech is designed to change that. At the school, students learn through doing collaborative projects that mimic workplace conditions. They visit IBM job sites, helping them understand how what they learn will apply in a future job. And, IBM mentors are assigned to each student as role models to help them understand workplace culture — typically an intimidating and foreign environment to kids from Trudon's neighborhood.

"The pathway seems more tangible from high school to college to industry," said Rashid Ferrod Davis, P-TECH's founding principal. P-TECH elevates tech and vocational jobs, he said, and provides the market skilled entry-level technology workers. But the school also has a higher mission: create a pathway out of poverty.

Industry connection

Stanley Litow, IBM's vice president of corporate citizenship, said the idea of developing a closer connection between education and industry arose in the wake of the 2008 recession, which hit New York City hard. Workers with high school diplomas were only earning about $15 per hour, if they could get a job. As the job crisis deepened, many couldn't find work. Meanwhile, industries like IBM — which doesn't hire people with only a high school diploma — faced a worsening skills crisis.

"IBM and our clients are hard-pressed to find people with the right kinds of entry-level skills," Litow said. "… A high school diploma doesn't cut it anymore, and enrollment in college doesn't mean completion."

In New York City, the recession coincided with growing discontent over the stagnant state of career technical education (formerly called vocational education) in city high schools, sky-high unemployment among minority and low-income young people, and insufficient preparation for success in college and jobs for those same groups.

So IBM decided to help create a school, with help from the City University of New York and the New York City Department of Education, based partly on the apprenticeship programs popular in some European countries.

"In Germany, it's very common for students to be part of system with deep and strong connections between business and education," Litow said. "That goes back for centuries….We wanted to take what was best about the Nordic model and incorporate it into what we were doing."

It's an idea that's catching on around the country. Five schools based on the model opened in Chicago this last fall, through partnerships with Verizon Wireless, IBM, Cisco, Microsoft and Motorola Corporation. More grade 9-14 schools linked to industries will open in New York next fall, and plans for similar schools are planned in at least five other states, including Idaho, where the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation is paying to create a school based on the P-TECH model. In all, 28 states now allow students to earn high school and college credit at the same time.

Making math cool

In his third period geometry class, Trudon tries to find the equation for a circle with a radius of 7. He's always liked math, but since starting P-TECH the subject has become more meaningful.

"This is stuff we need to know to do the jobs we want to do," he says.

At P-TECH, math is central because all graduates from the program will leave with an associate degree in either computer science technology or electromechanical engineering technology. The students gain the same math and science knowledge as regular high school students do, but they learn them through projects that relate to the tech industry. When Trudon does math, he's not simply learning what may seem like esoteric concepts with no real world meaning--he's working on a team trying to figure out a cost effective way to manufacture and sell a hypothetical smart tablet meant to compete with Apple's iPad.

Graduates of P-TECH have been promised first consideration for available jobs at IBM, where they might take entry-level work maintaining computer software, managing accounts or diagnosing and fixing software glitches. P-TECH's two-year college degree is transferable, too, so students can move on to a four-year college and keep working toward a bachelor's degree if they wish. Future schools based on the P-TECH model will align with other technology companies, and perhaps be developed to train workers for health care industries.

Back in his classroom, Trudon scratches down a string of numbers on his worksheet, sets his pencil down and patiently waits for the rest of the class to finish. When his teacher, Ms. Seifullah, invites students to share how they did the problem, Trudon's hand shoots up like a bolt.

Ms. Seifullah calls on him, and he casually walks up to the SMART Board at the front of the classroom, picks up the interactive pen and writes down his step-by-step procedure for solving the problem — perfectly. Several classmates give nods of approval as he passes them on his way back to his desk. In this school, being good at math is cool, which isn't the case in Trudon's neighborhood school back in Queens.

It wasn't always the case at this school either. P-Tech currently occupies the third floor of Paul Robeson High School, a perpetually troubled school in an Afro-Caribbean enclave of Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood.

Placing the school in a blighted urban neighborhood was intentional, Litow said. Eighty-eight percent of the students at P-TECH are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and ethnic "minorities" are in the majority: 76 percent of the students at P-TECH are black and 16 percent are Latino. Black males make up 80 percent of Trudon's ninth-grade class at P-TECH — "poor young men of color," as Davis describes his students.

More than half of all black males in America drop out of high school, and their prospects are dim: 23 percent of young black men ages 16 to 24 who dropped out of high school are incarcerated, compared to a rate of 6 to 7 percent of other young dropouts in the United States, said a study by Massachusetts' Northeastern University.

Such staggering loss of human and intellectual capital has a dire effect on the U.S. economy. If all of the students who dropped out of high school in 2007 had graduated, the U.S. economy would have benefited from an additional $329 billion in income over their lifetimes, according to Alliance for Excellent Education.

"By default, they fall into high-risk and dropout categories," said Davis. "They are furthest from success when you look at historical data, but we are happy with the signs we're seeing from using time differently here."

Some students, like Trudon are at P-TECH because they dream of careers in information technology. Others see the skills they are being taught as a means to a different end. Dominick Fryer, 15, also a student at the school, says a career in IT isn't his long-term goal. The boy, who lives in Queens, dreams of going to culinary school in France. "I need a job that can help me save up enough money to pay for cooking school," Fryer said. A job at IBM could be the way to make that dream a reality.

Contagious idea

When IBM executives began developing P-TECH's educational model, they intended that that it be shared, so that kids like Trudon in other cities could have chances similar to his.

"We were not looking for a model so rich and special that it could not be replicated," Litow said.

IBM gave $500,000 for start-up costs, mostly used to provide computer equipment and technology infrastructure for the school's adaptive learning programs. P-TECH receives funding through New York's early college initiative program, which allows students to take college classes at no cost while they are still in high school. With additional funds from various programs supporting education of low-income students, and some private donations, the school is able to operate at no cost to students.

To encourage adaptation, the school's founders wrote an online "playbook" to guide other schools and industries in adapting P-TECH's program. Topics include "Designing a Rigorous and Focused Curriculum," "Building a College Culture," and "Using Technology to Enrich and Extend Learning."

The playbook notes that creating similar schools could require more costs than standard schools do, and that school districts' base level funding could be insufficient. It suggests that schools braid together a funding package that includes federal, state and local programs, including School Improvement Grants if applicable. Creating a steering committee familiar with funding streams and grant-writing is encouraged.

The school is not without its critics, some of which point to the scanty arts offerings. Others point out that the school disproportionately serves males: 76 percent of the student body are boys.

If the school has a major flaw, some critics suggest, it's a somewhat ironic one: it could become too successful as it expands in other areas, graduating more technology workers than the job market will be able to absorb.

A 2008 report from the National Science Board suggests that America already produces three times as many STEM graduates as the economy can absorb into related jobs. "Contrary to some of the discussion...the STEM job market is mired in a jobs recession," said Ronil Hira, an engineer and professor of public policy at Rochester institute of Technology.

Even if that's true, programs like P-Tech still have immense value, according to American University economist Daniel Kuehn. The P-TECH schools, which are full of minority youth, are desirable because they could infuse the STEM industry with needed diversity, Kuehn said.

At IBM, the measure of P-TECH's success will be gauged after the program has matured enough to show high academic achievement, good graduation rates, widespread adoption of the model, and high rates of employment in promising positions for graduates. For now, Litow is gratified by a promising start. He doesn't believe in "declaring victory before we have victory," but is encouraged by P-TECH's first year results.

As the grade 9-14 model first began attracting interest, P-TECH's program caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who spoke of the school in a speech given in California on Sept. 26, 2011.

"It suddenly gives kids an incentive," Obama said. "They say, 'The reason I'm studying math and science is that there is a practical outcome. I will have a job. There are practical applications for what I'm doing in the classroom.'"

Moving ahead

Last week, about 40 students from P-TECH first cohort, now 10th-graders, took college placement exams for math. The students met in a large classroom outside Davis's office for a pep talk before taking the exams. As they snacked on bagels and juice, Davis encouraged them to do their best on the placement tests.

"You are some of the only 10th-graders in this city to be in a position to receive college credit," their dreadlocked school principal said. "We are so proud of you all."

One boy, whose face was tense and ashen, raised his hand. "Mr Davis," he asked, "what if we don't pass?"

"You need to believe in yourself," said Davis. "We want you to do the best you can, but if you don't pass then we'll get together and make a plan to improve."

Though half of the school's first class of ninth-graders scored below proficiency on math and English exams when they entered the school in 2011, the P-TECH curriculum caught them up quickly. By the end of the school year, 76 of the 102 students passed New York's college-readiness tests for English and integrated algebra. Many are now taking college-level STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses. Attendance is at 94 percent, despite the long commutes many of the students face, summer sessions and longer-than-average school days.

Trudon is in the second class of ninth-graders to enter P-TECH, which brought the total number of students at the school to 238. There will be 600 students in the school eventually, in grades 9 through 14. Trudon looks forward to experiences he hears about from the first cohort of P-TECH students, this year's 10th-graders. They've built websites, learned about robotics and done simple computer programming. With rewards like that to look forward to, Trudon said he will gladly slog his way through all kinds of math and science classes.

That's how Trudon Exter sees the pathway he is on.

"I still don't like it," he said, referring to the extra hours he spends at school preparing for the Regents exams. "But I do it, because there is going to be a big payoff one day."