How Obama-endorsed P-TECH high school is changing education [Q&A]

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama made several sweeping statements about how he’d like to improve education, but he saved a specific mention for Brooklyn, NY-based P-TECH, or Pathways in Technology Early College High School.

Talking about the importance of aligning education with employment opportunities, he said in countries like Germany, students finish high school armed with the skills they need for the jobs that are available.

“Now at schools like P-TECH in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York public schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in computers or engineering,” Obama said. “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.”

Opened in September 2011, P-TECH is an IBM-backed,(s ibm) six-year program for New York City public high school students. At the end of the program, students get a high school degree, an associate’s degree and better chances for an entry-level position at IBM upon graduation. Even before the president’s endorsement, educators in Chicago, Maine, Massachusetts and elsewhere had started to explore the model, but given last night’s recognition you can be sure P-TECH will be getting even more attention.

In a chat with GigaOM Wednesday, Rashid Davis, P-TECH’s founding principal, talked about what makes P-TECH work, how it could be replicated and what could make the model even better.

GigaOM: As we write about frequently on GigaOM, the digital economy is creating the demand for new skills and new ways of learning those skills. From your perspective, what’s driving the momentum behind P-Tech and new schools like it? 

Davis: I think, really, it’s industry coming forward and saying these are the skills that are important and working with secondary and post-secondary institutions to say how do we make sure those gaps and skills are filled.

GigaOM: Corporations have worked with educators in the past but what really distinguishes P-Tech’s model?

Davis: Every student has a mentor from IBM and the expectation is for students to complete the post-secondary credential, not just earn a college credit. And it’s an open-admission school that starts in grade 9. We’re not taking students that have taken an academic test or have been academically screened for this particular model. 

GigaOM: Why is it a model that can succeed in different cities and school districts across the country?

Davis: Because you’re talking about the diversification that’s necessary – how do you get people who are underrepresented and you’re broadening the applicant pool for areas where jobs are not getting filled. … It can also be replicated for other industries – not just IT. It could be manufacturing, it could be fashion, it could be sports.  It really depends on the industry and the skills that you want to address and the post-secondary institutions that could give you that credential.

GigaOM: The first wave of students will graduate in 2017, but what early indicators can you look at to evaluate how the program is doing and measure success?

Davis: There are some students that may complete this program in four years or five years. But so far, we have 103 students who started with us in grade 9 last year and, of those, 62 are enrolled in at least one college course. … It’s important to understand that this an open-admissions population, with many students who may be the first in their family to even graduate from high school. I don’t want people to try to compare these students to traditional students who may have a different economic background or different levels of support and then [give less value to] measures of success from not really understanding [that difference].

GigaOM: What kinds of challenges have you encountered so far? 

Davis: The challenge is to have 13- and 14-year-olds who may have thought of themselves as students who have not done well, and now we’re telling them that they’re college students from day one. That becomes a challenge because students need to not only make a mental shift, but change their habits so they can… believe in themselves and be consistent in their outcomes.

GigaOM: How do you support them in that shift?

Davis: In addition to every student having a professional IBM mentor, every teacher mentors students and we’re having students adopt each other.

GigaOM: If you could do more to make this model a success, what would it be?

Davis: I would add a boarding component for six months in the summer and I’d try to find a way to house the students for the last two years… 85 percent of my students are on free or reduced lunch and they’re not coming from within walking distance of the community. And it’s important to remember that 76 percent of our population are boys, with 73 percent being young men of color. Every day they go into their communities and we’re at risk of losing them or having them sidetracked to other realities. With boarding, I think it’s essential to make sure we can continue the learning.

GigaOM: Aside from schools like yours, what else would you like to see in NYC schools?

Davis: I’d like to see every high school in NYC attached to one of the [City University of New York] schools to allow this same opportunity to exist for all NYC public school students. We know it’s hard for students to actually get meaningful employment – we need to start off by saying that it’s important for every NYC student who graduates from public school leaves with a post-secondary credential or associates degree.

GigaOM: And, as other schools around the country create P-Tech like schools, what would you advise them?

Davis: They should keep in mind: how do we move quicker? How do we really think of the ways that postsecondary schools could be dual-credentialed for students to actually let them do more while they’re younger and before life gets in the way?