Bridging the Opportunity Divide

When Graduating High School Late Is a Good Thing

January 3, 2018
When Graduating High School Late Is a Good Thing
The first graduates of P-Tech in Brooklyn, N.Y. The first-of-its-kind program brings together corporations and schools to help poor and minority students land lucrative careers in tech. Photo by Ari Fishkind for IBM
They enroll at 14 and finish by 20. What these students get for their efforts: a diploma, an associate’s degree and the skills to catapult them up the career ladder.

Leslieanne John wanted to avoid the low-performing, often dangerous high schools in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y., where she lived. But when she didn’t get accepted into any of the other schools she applied to as an eighth-grader in 2011, she decided to take a chance on a new school. Called Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-Tech for short, the school had opened in a nearby neighborhood the year before.

John found the vocational school challenging and her fellow students smart and competitive. Her father encouraged her but warned that as a young black woman hoping to enter the technology world, she had to work four times as hard as anyone else. He’d had to quit college with only a few credits to go when she was born, but he knew his daughter could make it.

John did. Besides receiving her high school diploma, graduating from P-Tech also earned her an associate’s degree in computer systems technology from the New York City College of Technology. 

“Seeing my dad’s face when the confetti dropped, that was enough for me,” she says, recalling her graduation last June. Now 20, John works in organizational development at IBM and is studying for her bachelor’s degree part-time. A lot of her middle school friends already have children; a few are incarcerated. 

P-Tech’s unique model brings together high schools, community colleges and corporate employers who collaborate on the curriculum. Fusing classroom instruction with workplace experience, the program also offers internships and mentoring. Meant to be completed in six years or less, P-Tech was designed by IBM, where nearly all graduates who do not go on to four-year colleges are first in line for any open jobs. The end goal: to provide kids from low-income communities a direct route to the middle class.

IBM’s Stan Litow (left), founder of the P-Tech model, honors Gabriel Rosa, a 2015 graduate who now designs website interfaces for IBM’s Digital Business Group.Photo by Ausgusto F. Menezes/Feature Photo Service for IBM

So far, P-Tech in Brooklyn has graduated 81 students; 14 have accepted jobs from IBM, and almost all of them are pursuing their bachelor’s degrees while working. Nationally, those with only a high school education earn an average of $30,500 per year. For P-Tech graduates working at IBM, that number jumps to around $50,000, according to Stan Litow, president emeritus of the IBM Foundation and the founder of the P-Tech model. 

IBM built the program to be easily replicated by school districts in other states and around the world. The company offers online support and curriculum guidance for those interested in developing the public-private partnerships necessary to the model’s success. There are now more than 80 P-Tech schools in six states as well as in Australia and Morocco, with corporate partners in fields spanning healthcare, manufacturing and agriculture.

The 2016 graduating class gather for a photo with IBM’s Stan Litow at P-Tech in Brooklyn.Photo courtesy of IBM

Rashid Ferrod Davis, P-Tech’s founding principal, rushes through the well-maintained hallways in a blue tracksuit, pausing only to pick up dropped paper towels on the floor. He says the hardest part of his job is going home each day, as there are many afterschool activities to attend, not to mention an education model to perfect.

He explains that a longer school day, with some teachers working an early shift and others a late shift, provides more time for freshmen to focus on English, math, and career readiness in longer blocks. It’s a cohesive curriculum — for example, a math class might include elements of writing and teach presentation and business skills.

A recent report by the College Board noted that P-Tech in Brooklyn had a completion rate four times higher than the national average for associate-degree students. More than 80 percent of its alumni are currently working toward their bachelor’s degree, compared to 55 percent of New York City students who graduate from traditional high schools. That’s good news, considering that by 2024 an estimated 16 million new jobs will be created that require at least a two-year degree.

John, who finished the six-year program in just four-and-a-half years, says P-Tech introduced her to a side of herself she didn’t know she had. “The last thing on my mind was how hard I needed to work,” she says now. “But being around peers that were also very competitive and very intelligent sort of pushed me and the rest of us to get everything done as quickly and as best as we could.”