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

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

"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.'"

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