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Brooklyn's P-TECH model is getting attention from Buffalo schools

There’s a high school in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn that’s working on a better educational model to prepare underserved kids for college and the workforce.

The school emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math. Its partner, IBM, ensures that students have mentors, paid internships and the skills they need for today’s fast-changing economy.

Not only do students graduate with a high school diploma, but they can leave with a two-year college degree – free of charge. And once they graduate, they’re first in line for entry-level jobs at IBM.

That model – once hailed by former President Barack Obama as the “ticket into the middle class” – is being replicated across the United States.

The next stop could be Buffalo.

The founders of Pathways in Technology Early High School – P-TECH, for short – were in Buffalo recently to speak with curious school district officials about what it would take to duplicate P-TECH here.

While discussions are still in the very early stages, the idea has gained traction among district officials as well as business leaders eager to grow local talent.

“I was instantly impressed with it and really think it needs to be here,” said Larry Quinn, a member of the Buffalo Board of Education.

Quinn – who is spearheading the effort – brought the P-TECH founders to Buffalo, after he and a few district administrators visited the school in Brooklyn to check out the buzz firsthand.

“The key to this is the private-sector partnership with education, and really creating a curriculum that is useful to a kid when he gets out and enters the work place,” Quinn said.

The concept was born from the so-called “skills gap” that U.S. employers have encountered among young people showing up at their doors without the technical and professional talent needed.

IBM, the New York City Department of Education and the City University of New York teamed up on a solution: a six-year high school program that opened in 2011 with six key tenets:

• A partnership with higher education and private industry.

• No entrance exam – the only requirement is interest.

• Seamless support for students to earn their high school diploma and associate's degree in six years or less.

• A workplace component, including mentoring, job visits and paid internships.

• The associate's degree is free.

• Graduates are first in line for entry-level employment with industry partners.

“It’s essential that they be integrated together,” said Stanley Litow, president emeritus of IBM’s Foundation and former deputy chancellor of New York City Public Schools, who helped design the P-TECH program.

“If somebody says, 'Well, I would like to do this, but I can’t do the 9 to 14, I just want to do 9 to 12,’ it’s not going to work,” Litow said, referring to the six-year program compared to the traditional four.  “Or if they say, ‘I like this, but we can’t do the mentoring,’ it’s not going to work. They need to be a package.”

Litow and P-TECH Principal Rashid Davis came to Buffalo to talk about the Brooklyn high school, which has more than 560 students. The majority are African-American and male. Three-quarters are considered economically disadvantaged.

Of the 91 students who started in the fall of 2011, 78 percent graduated high school after four years while six had already earned their associate's degree, according to figures from IBM.

The “vast majority” of graduates from the first two classes continued on for their bachelor’s, and 15 were working at IBM as of April while continuing their education, an IBM spokesman said.

How does P-TECH get those results?

“You’d have to come to visit,” Davis said.

Interest in the program’s model has only grown with recognition from the likes of Obama, who encouraged other companies to create similar partnerships. The P-TECH design has been replicated around New York, in seven other states, as well as internationally, Litow said.

In Buffalo, Quinn already has reached out to several local business leaders, who expressed the need to diversify their workforce, but also raised concerns about the short supply of talent.

The business leaders he spoke with liked the idea of a P-TECH in Buffalo, although it’s not about companies dumping money into operating the school, Quinn said.

“This is not that,” Quinn said. “This is direct engagement in the process so that what comes out in the end is not only kids who graduate, but kids who are college-ready and job-ready.”

Given the preliminary nature of the discussions, Quinn did not want to disclose the businesses he reached out to.

But among the early supporters are Superintendent Kriner Cash and Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold, who met with Litow and Davis during their visit to Buffalo.

Buffalo already offers students a chance to work toward their associate degree while earning a high school diploma through its Middle Early College High School, but P-TECH is different.

“I am excited about this new model and look forward to partnering with local high schools to address industry skills’ gaps, while providing jobs for people in our community,” said Erie Community College President Dan Hocoy, who has also been in on the discussions.

The model aligns with what the district has done over the past couple years at Bennett High School, which was phased out and reopened as the Lewis J. Bennett School of Innovation with a focus on computer-science related fields.

"This requires a stricter adherence to sort of a 9 to 14 model,” Cash said of P-TECH, “and the partnership with higher education and the business alignment is really important – so that excites me.”

The district is just at the beginning of the discussion and there are still plenty of questions.

P-TECH, for example, runs on a longer school day, so the district would need the support of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

“What I do worry about is taking part of it and slapping the P-TECH name on it and thinking we’re doing it right,” Quinn said. “You've got to change the structure from top to bottom on how you do it. And I think the district is ready to do that.”

There’s also a difference of opinion as to whether the district would open a new school or redesign an existing one to fit the P-TECH format.

“I think we could get it done,” Cash said. “I’m interested in it, but I’m interested in either morphing or doing it at that site – Bennett – because we don’t have enough population in the city right now to start adding more high schools when I have five high schools that are half filled. The population has stabilized, so we want to be careful as we grow, that we’re growing right.”

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