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

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

"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.

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