As politicians, scholars and activists debate the state of the nation’s education system there are initiatives being designed and implemented to develop the skills of students to compete within a competitive workforce. On September 8, 2011 the Department of Education, the City University of New York (CUNY) and IBM partnered to open, P-TECH an innovative New York City high school where students are educated an additional two years from grade 9 through 14. In addition to learning traditional core subjects, pupils receive education in the fields of STEM (Science, technology engineering and mathematics), a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree in Applied Science (AAS) in Computer Systems Technology or Electromechanical Engineering Technology.
With IBM underwriting the program, students are given priority for select entry-level positions with the company. P-TECH opened with 104 first year students and will add an estimated 100 students per year, with a total projected enrollment of 400-450 students by 2014. Entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing the success of the school is founding principal, Rashid Ferrod Davis, an education veteran with over 15 years of experience as a teacher, assistant principal and, most recently, the principal of the highly celebrated, Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy (BETA). BlackEnterprise.com spoke with Davis recently to address the academic and socioeconomic challenges of students, promoting entrepreneurship, and his plans for P-TECH.
For the most part corporate philanthropy has focused on distributing money and resources without any real hands-on involvement in schools and organizations. How does this project differ from such common practices?
Davis: This is different because it’s not just about writing a check. They are saying these are the skills we know entry-level workers have and these are the skills workers come with that have three years of work experience. So we’re looking at how we scaffold those skills downward as early as high school. By the end of the six-year model students then develop those soft skills that are missing when students leave college.
What elements of the workplace learning curriculum have been incorporated to ensure that these soft skills are developed?
There are four classes, which include English, math, technology, and workplace learning is its own course. In it there is project-based learning focused around team building, power point usage, coming up with project management solutions. So they understand how to work as a team, develop plans and carry out those plans.
A large majority of your students are expected to come from low-income backgrounds. Along with that will be certain barriers; what is in place to address personal life challenges that students may have?
For 104 students we have two guidance counselors and a talent search coordinator from Brooklyn College to expose them to college and prepare families for the college readiness process. It’s about how do we help families understand financial literacy to prepare for college, college trips and studying for high stakes examinations.
The school is unscreened, which has its potential pros and cons. On one hand it levels out the playing field but on the other hand there are some concerned that without screening you may be setting some students up for failure if they don’t have the solid background needed to pursue this level of advanced work. What is your response to that?
We know that the demand for information technology is outpacing the supply. We want to get underrepresented students and populations to go into science, technology, engineering or math industries. It’s important not to focus only on top tier students. We have to work with those who need strengthening so that they have a shot at middle-income lifestyles via these industries. We did research before executing to make sure we are doing best practices to build literacy and numeracy for them to complete a two-year and four-year degree in a STEM field.