by Vince Bielski
Michael Landsbaum hit bottom after his father lost his job and couldn’t pay rent, leaving the teenager homeless in Dallas. He slept on friends’ couches for months until he was rescued by an unlikely source: his high school.
But Pathways in Technology Early College High School did much more than provide him with a place to stay at a counselor’s home. Its accelerated program, including college courses, gave Landsbaum the drive to get through the tough times and the hope for better days.
“My goal was to get my associate’s degree, and when I got that, things got a whole lot easier,” he says.
Landsbaum, 20, is finishing his bachelor’s in computer science at the University of North Texas – a turnaround that’s typical of the school, part of a growing movement better known by its acronym P-TECH.
Founded in 2011 by IBM and the Bloomberg administration in New York City, P-TECH has spread to 10 states with 127 schools as of last year, achieving remarkable results for the low-income, black and Latino students they serve. In Dallas, for example, 72% of students graduated with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in about four years. That’s about eight times the national average for on-time community college graduation by students of color.
After decades of struggle in America to lift the fortunes of low-income students, an answer has emerged in P-TECH, which operates within public school systems, typically taking over all or part of existing schools.
“It’s one of the most transformative programs I’ve seen in my four decades in education,” says Don Haddad, the superintendent of Colorado’s St. Vrain Valley School District, which has three P-TECH schools. “Every major school district across the country should adopt the model. It really opens doors for disadvantaged students.”
What’s the secret sauce? It starts with an accelerated curriculum and frequent testing to keep students on track–the very things that progressive educators are trying to stamp out today. Students complete a two-year community college associate’s degree in addition to the typical high school program as early as 12th grade, a notable achievement. In another break from standard fare, schools bring on corporate partners who inspire students with the opportunity for jobs in hot fields like computer programming and health care technology—a boon for companies that can’t find qualified candidates to fill such positions.
P-TECH’s success offers a counterpoint to critical race theory, a controversial academic movement increasingly adopted in schools that casts “systemic racism” and white supremacy as pervasive problems that students can counteract through racial awareness. P-TECH is showing that underperforming students from poor communities can master a race-neutral mainstream STEM curriculum, especially when they see a brighter future, in the form of a well-paying job, within their grasp.
The battle-tested program, which marks its first decade in September, has been hailed by Republican and Democratic governors, corporate chiefs and superintendents across the country. It has enjoyed an early growth spurt, reaching tens of thousands of students in the states with the help of hundreds of U.S. corporate partners, from Microsoft to American Airlines.
But PTECH’s expansion plans face pushback from the left and right in the heated politics of school reform. Among other objections, progressives oppose corporate partnerships as a corrupting influence on education. Republican politicians don’t want taxpayer dollars to pay for college that’s free to students and their families.
“It’s very difficult to innovate in the current toxic education environment,” says Stan Litow, the mastermind behind P-TECH. “Even if a school has amazing results, you run into resistance.”
Nevertheless, Litow saw an opening to address the disconnect between what schools teach today and the advanced skills companies need. He had spent his career in education policy, rising to deputy chancellor of schools in New York City and then serving as the president of the IBM foundation. With a foot in both the public and private sectors, he was well-positioned to design a model that reimagined traditional high schools.
But Litow had seen plenty of promising ideas in education amount to nothing. He found a cautionary tale in the failure of Common Core standards, an attempt like P-TECH to raise the academic bar that was advanced by the Bush and Obama administrations. For P-TECH to spread, he had to get early buy-in from the many stakeholders in education.
Undaunted, Litow and his IBM team began a years-long road show in 2011. Governors were his first line of attack, since they control education policy. He met with a dozen, including Gina Raimondo, then Rhode Island’s Democratic governor and now U.S. secretary of commerce, and Republican Larry Hogan of Maryland. They endorsed P-TECH as a win-win for corporations in need of skilled employees and inner-city students in need of a career.
When governors balked, it was usually about money. Gary Herbert toured a P-TECH school when he was governor of Utah and was impressed. But aides in the governor’s office told Litow that the state’s Republican lawmakers wouldn’t want to pay for a community college degree for high schoolers. That can cost $10,000 per student. Litow won over powerful principals and teachers unions by assuring them P-TECH schools would be public rather than nonunion charters. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, signed on. Civil rights leaders also endorsed P-TECH as a big departure from the old and discredited vocational education that tracked kids of color through woodshop classes and into dead-end jobs.
His most ambitious move was raising the academic standards. P-TECH would have no admission requirements to weed out weaker students who had fallen behind. They would have to quickly catch up in high school to enroll in rigorous engineering and scientific college courses and finish in no more than six years. It was a wager that underperformers can become high achievers with the proper motivation
Corporate partners would provide that carrot. During paid internships students would see, often for the first time, a clear path from their bad neighborhood to a good job at a competitive salary of $50,000 or more.
But selling the idea of corporate partnerships wasn’t always easy. Progressive academics call career and technical education (CTE) like P-TECH aimed at poor students unfair and even racist. Researchers at the National Education Policy Center say low-income students, who are disproportionately black or Latino, deserve the same broad general education that white teens get in suburbia. They shouldn’t be funneled into technical specialties that benefit private companies.
“Today corporations have a more direct role inside schools and are taking control of the curriculum through CTE,” says Professor Ken Saltman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who focuses on the privatization of public education. “So is this in the interest of everyone or those businesses? That’s a really big issue.”
States Jump Onboard
IBM’s home state of New York started the rollout of P-TECH schools a decade ago. Illinois was an early adopter after then Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel got the P-TECH endorsement from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
President Obama’s shout-out to P-TECH in his 2013 State of the Union – “We need to give every American student opportunities like this” – was a game changer. Governors started calling Litow to get the ball rolling. Connecticut, Maryland, Colorado, Texas, Rhode Island, Louisiana, and New Jersey jumped onboard. California, the big prize, joined in 2018 at the urging of IBM. Minnesota will open its first school at the end of August as part of a small expansion to other states. IBM’s goal: 300 schools in 17 states by 2025. P-TECH is also expanding internationally, with schools in more than 20 countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
They are signing up because of P-TECH’s off-the-charts performance. At the first school, which opened in Brooklyn in 2011, about half of its debut class earned an associate’s degree on time within two years of getting a high school diploma. Many finished by 12th grade or one year later. Across the country and a decade later, Colorado’s St. Vrain district saw 58% of its eligible students take home a degree. These results clobber the national average of about 9% for on-time graduation by students from similar backgrounds.
All innovations produce surprises. Litow never expected that most of the graduates, emboldened by the taste of academic success, would go on to get a bachelor’s degree. At least a dozen have earned graduate degrees too. One alum from New York is in a Ph.D. program and another is applying to medical school – outcomes that seem unimaginable without P-TECH.
For the corporate partners, this is not just philanthropy. More than 300 U.S. companies large and small have jumped in because they are short on skilled employees. As part of the deal, companies typically pick the types of associate’s degrees, from biotech to marketing, that each P-TECH school offers. Companies also design and teach new classes in “soft skills,” covering dress codes, teamwork and presentation-making, that students need to succeed at work.
But some businesses are not buying the P-TECH magic, posing another challenge to expansion. It’s a big commitment of time for companies obliged to provide mentors and paid internships with the hope of getting skilled employees six years later.
Companies are uncertain that struggling public schools will do their part. The health care company Ascension Texas is trying to instill a sense of urgency in the Austin school district to meet its P-TECH curriculum expectations, creating a “healthy tension,” says Geronimo Rodriguez, Ascension’s chief advocacy officer.
IBM, for one, is doubling down on P-TECH. This summer it brought on 1,000 paid interns, a big number. In the past, most graduates of schools sponsored by the technology goliath who wanted a job got one in areas like cybersecurity and data analysis. “They are first in line to interview for jobs,” says Justina Nixon-Saintil, global head of corporate social responsibility at IBM. “If there is a job that’s good for them, absolutely, we make that offer.”
Inside P-TECH’s Flagship School
When entering the nation’s first P-TECH school in Brooklyn, students can’t miss the large posters of smiling faces lining the hallways. These are the students who have passed state tests to qualify to take college classes in either computer systems or electromechanical engineering, the two specialties of the school.
The posters send a message to students, 97% of whom are black or Latino. “In a lot of urban communities, the perception is that you’re acting white if you’re excelling academically,” says Principal Rashid Davis. “So I want the students to see themselves on posters and realize there is nothing wrong with being smart and find motivation by their success in getting into college.”
More than half of the students entering the school are behind their grade level. So they have to work harder than their peers. The school day is two periods longer than normal. Summer break lasts only two weeks. The school designed its ninth-grade curricula to be an intensive year of catch-up. The time devoted to studying math and English is doubled, providing a foundation for the rigors of college ahead. The mostly black male students generally start on action novels before making their way to James Baldwin and Shakespeare.
Whip-smart teenagers like Nathan Alleyne excel from the get-go, taking courses at New York City College of Technology by 10th grade. By grade 12 he finished his associate’s degree in computer systems, learning Python, Java and CSS. This fall he starts pursuing a bachelor’s in the same field. “I learned a lot about taking charge of my life and managing my time to make sure everything gets done,” he says. “I’m very grateful.”
What keeps students going is the awareness that Davis is expecting them to succeed – a new experience for many. He walks the halls, asking students why they didn’t do better on a recent test. “You got a 90. Why not a 95?” says Davis, laughing about such chats with students. “They need to know that they matter.”
Aaliyah Charles needed that push. Raised by her mother who struggled to pay the bills after Aaliyah’s father left the family, she came to P-TECH without much confidence at the urging of her mom because the college classes were free. But it was a challenge. She pulled all-nighters. Failing college algebra was a low point. Then she reached out to an unusual source of support: her mentor at IBM – the school’s corporate partner.
“I could talk to her about my problems,” Charles says. “She said it’s okay, but next time I take the class, I have to dedicate myself and everything will be fine.” Charles aced the rest of her math classes, including calculus, and graduated in June with a degree in electromechanical engineering.
Her internship at IBM also set her on a career path. She worked in a program to encourage inner-city girls to pursue a career in a STEM field. Now a more self-assured leader, Charles aims to start a nonprofit to continue that work after finishing her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Stony Brook University in New York.
New York City’s Cold Shoulder
New York City, the biggest school district in the U.S., has about eight P-TECHs and could fill dozens more. The Brooklyn school gets more than 1,000 applicants each year for about 125 seats. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a progressive who succeeded Michael Bloomberg, started a few schools, including one this year. But he backed away from a pledge to aggressively expand P-TECH in his two terms.
Instead, he joined progressive advocates in rejecting Bloomberg’s policy of accountability that replaced large failing schools with smaller ones like P-TECH. The Department of Education shifted its focus to address systemic racism as the root of the problem for students of color. Accelerated classes and schools – the DNA of P-TECH – are dismissed as discriminatory.
Principal Davis calls the de Blasio years “a political nightmare” for P-TECH. He says the department evaluates his P-TECH like a traditional high school and ignores its successful corporate partnership and college degrees earned after 12th grade. The department didn’t respond to RealClearInvestigations’ questions.
“We were created to disrupt the system so they should evaluate us through a different lens,” Davis says. “I do things that are against their philosophical belief. We have proven that we can improve outcomes for brown children. And they hate me for showing this.”
Transforming Dallas Schools
As P-TECH hit a snag in liberal New York, it took off in business-friendly Dallas. Dallas’ public school district, the 16th largest in the country and made up almost entirely of disadvantaged Latino and black students, turned to P-TECH to solve a problem. Charter schools were poaching students. “So we decided to come up with some competition to beat them at their own game,” says Superintendent Michael Hinojosa.
The district, which had already brought college into a few high schools, was inspired by the Brooklyn partnership with IBM. So Hinojosa went all-in, spending $25 million to build the infrastructure, including placing an assistant principal and workplace coordinator devoted to P-TECH at every school. This helped assure businesses, which had concerns about the job-readiness of the graduates, that the district was serious about making the partnerships work.
“I had to visit American Airline three times because they were so skeptical,” Hinojosa says.
As more than 80 partners (including American Airlines) signed on, the district installed P-TECH in 18 of its 21 comprehensive high schools – the most in any U.S. city. The superintendent is thrilled with the results – three-quarters of its inaugural class got an associate’s degree, the school retention rate is up and behavior problems are down.
“P-TECH has been transformational for the entire district,” he says. “I’ve been a superintendent for 27 years and I have never before seen anything else that can be such a catalyst for change.”
Initially some corporate partners tip-toed into the program. Accenture offered one internship in its first summer with P-TECH. Last summer it jumped to 30. Thomson Reuters completely bought in. The information-services company was so pleased with its first batch of 30 paid interns that it hired 23 of them to assist Fortune 500 clients with software issues. “They are thriving in their roles,” says Gabrielle Madison, the director of community relations.
This summer the firm almost doubled the number of interns in hopes of hiring them too. Thomson Reuters offices in Minneapolis, Michigan and perhaps overseas also plan to tap the P-TECH pipeline for talent. What are the long-term prospects for P-TECH grads?
Radcliffe Saddler, who was part of the Brooklyn flagship’s first class, immediately took an entry-level job at IBM as a marketing data analyst after graduation. Radcliffe says he experienced the “highs and lows” of being a black teenager from a poor neighborhood trying to fit into a buttoned-up white workplace. But he persevered, got his bachelor’s paid for by IBM, and won his first promotion this summer into a more creative role.
He uses his coding and design chops to build client interfaces for virtual assistants in the Watson artificial intelligence brand. He has also doubled his salary and now makes six-figures.
“P-TECH was a game changer considering the community I came from,” he says. “It’s the reason I’m working on the Watson platform today.”
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Vince Bielski is a writer for RealClearInvestigations.