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

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9 2013 1:00 p.m. MST

English class at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. P-Tech is a pioneering program designed to help low-income students get a high school degree and an associate degree. It also gives them priority to be hired by IBM.

Elizabeth Stuart

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.

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