IBM’s School Could Fix Education—And Tech’s Diversity Gap

IBM’s School Could Fix Education—And Tech’s Diversity Gap

IT’S A SEA of black graduation gowns in the belly of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn one rainy Tuesday evening in June. On the floor of the stadium, where the basketball court should be, sit thousands of students awaiting the start of the 75th Commencement of the New York City College of Technology, better known as City Tech. Everywhere, students are snapping selfies, craning their necks to find family members in the upper decks, and fastening last-minute bobby pins to caps bearing messages like “Thanks Mom!” and “Dream Big” scrawled in glitter and puff paint.

A procession of City Tech professors in robes and doctoral hoods file past the rows of students on their way to the stage. The line is moving slowly but steadily when an accounting professor students call Dr. Singh stops short after spotting six of his students seated in the row to his left. He smiles wide, throws his arms in the air, and gives each of them a handshake or celebratory clap on the back before pulling out his phone to snap a photo. Even from above, you can see the kids beaming.

If Dr. Singh is particularly proud of this sextet, he would not be without reason, and he certainly would not be the only one. For starters, they are all 17 and 18. Few expected them to graduate this early. Given their backgrounds, few people probably expected them to graduate at all.

These six students are not the kind of boy or girl genius types who are accepted to Mensa at age 4 and master calculus by age 6. In fact, back in 8th grade, none of them were accepted into their first choice high schools. Many are the first in their families to attend college—a fact that, statistically speaking, makes them far less likely to graduate at all, let alone several years early.

But four years ago, these six students were among the first to enroll in a new public high school called P-TECH, short for Pathways in Technology Early College High School. The program, backed by IBM, aims to prepare mainly minority kids from low-income backgrounds for careers in technology. The idea is to earn a high school diploma and a free associate degree in six years or less. The students sitting in Barclays tonight—P-TECH’s inaugural graduates—plowed through the program in just four.

Since it opened in 2011, the likes of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Obama himself have praised the school as a potential solution to the nation’s high youth unemployment rate and its growing need for a skilled tech labor force. That makes tonight’s graduation more than a milestone for these six students. It’s a milestone for the model itself. From this day forward, Cletus Andoh, Gabriel Rosa, Kiambu Gall, Michelle Nguyen, Radcliffe Saddler, and Rahat Mahmud will be held up as irrefutable proof that this solution might actually work.

Supply And Demand
Tech companies are long on excuses about why they’ve been so slow to diversify their ranks, even in the face of constant criticism. But by far the most frequently cited reason is they can’t hire diverse employees en masse until the country builds a diverse pipeline of skilled tech workers. With P-TECH, IBM has done nothing if not create a prototype of that pipeline. Now, it’s calling on other tech leaders to take that prototype and do what they do best: scale it to the millions of people—in this case kids—who need it most.

For young people in the US, work is scarce. According to the group Opportunity Nation, one in seven young adults between 16 and 24 is neither working or in school. Those figures are even higher for black and Latino youths.

At the same time, the demand for so-called middle skill tech workers is spiking. P-TECH isn’t the first school that’s tried to bridge this gap by giving kids college credit while they’re still in high school. But what separates the P-TECH model from other dual enrollment schools is how it has been embraced—even spearheaded—by businesses.

The concept for the original P-TECH school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn was dreamed up back in 2010 by New York’s former Chancellor of Education Joel Klein and IBM’s then-CEO Samuel Palmisano. Just scratching its way out of the worst of the financial crisis, the city was looking for new ways to connect education to employment, and IBM volunteered to help by launching a school that would do just that.

Led by IBM’s vice president of corporate citizenship, Stanley Litow, the IBM team joined the Department of Education and the City University of New York to design a six-year high school that would give kids a well-rounded high school education while also equipping them with the same skills and degrees that IBM demands of its own employees. IBM would provide the students with mentors, paid summer internships, and give the kids special consideration for jobs at IBM after graduation. It would funnel kids directly into associate degree programs and ensure that they walked away from the school as debt-free college graduates. If IBM and other tech companies had a stake in educating students early on, the thinking went, maybe the gulf between employers and the young and unemployed wouldn’t stay so wide.

Just five years later, that first school in Brooklyn is now home to 434 students, and their list of achievements is already long. Nearly 50 percent of them are enrolled in at least one college course. More than 80 percent of the fourth-year students have completed paid internships at IBM. And of the six students who graduated with their associate degrees in applied science in June, all were offered full-time jobs at IBM.

But what’s even more noteworthy is just how fast this model has grown. By fall, 40 schools across the country will be designed in P-TECH’s image. IBM backs four of them, but they’re also run by tech giants like Microsoft and SAP, major energy companies like ConEdison, along with hospital systems, manufacturing associations, and civil engineering trade groups. They go by different names and are geared toward different career paths, but they all follow the IBM playbook, an extensive guide the company publishes online.

It explains everything from how to distribute funding for the school to how to plan the curriculum year by year. It all boils down to a few essential elements: Every P-TECH school has an employer partner. Every employer partner promises to guide the curriculum and put P-TECH grads first in line for jobs. And every student—no matter their backgrounds, test scores, or academic record—is welcome.

Not A World Apart
P-TECH’s founding principal, Rashid Davis, wears dreadlocks on his head and electric blue sneakers on his feet. He uses the term “other realities” to refer to the knotty web of societal traps that can ensnare low-income kids before they reach college age. Walking through the front doors of P-TECH, it’s clear this school is not immune to those realities.

Bars line the windows of the monolithic, 112-year-old school building on Albany Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The words “Paul Robeson High School for Business and Technology” still mark the entryway, a reminder of the promising career-focused school housed within these walls before it became infamous for its violence and low performance and shut down. Inside the front doors, students file through a metal detector as a security guard barks threats at students who look at her sideways.

This is no educational utopia, and Litow says it was never meant to be. Litow ran an education think tank and served as deputy chancellor of education for the city of New York before joining IBM. That’s where he saw how detrimental it could be for a school to be a little too perfect, a little too well-funded, a little too set apart.

“If you’re trying to create an example for other schools but you have different admissions criteria or spend more money or do it in a new school or in a high income neighborhood, people will always say, ‘Okay, that worked, but it worked because of all these things,’” Litow says. “We wanted to make sure there would be as little barrier as conceivable to replicate to another site.”

The beauty of P-TECH is the way it mines the natural resources of the existing school system and forges them into something altogether new, starting with its student body. Its students are 96 percent black and Hispanic, and around 80 percent of them receive free and reduced lunch. This means P-TECH is starting with the kids the education system too often brands least likely to succeed and making the bet that they will. “If you can achieve for these kids, the model really works,” Litow says.

As for funding, no money changes hands between the school and IBM. P-TECH is a normal public school in that respect; it’s supported by state and local budgets. While IBM doesn’t make a straightforward monetary donation to the schools, the company estimates it’s spent well over $1 million on things like curriculum development, new school training programs, student internships, and employee time.

P-TECH also bends and molds time to its advantage by allowing kids to advance on to college courses as soon as they’ve passed the college readiness benchmarks on state tests, which measure students’ English and math skills. To get kids to those benchmarks faster, P-TECH offers only English, math, technology, and workplace learning freshman year. By stripping away courses like science and history, the thinking goes, students will be able to master their literacy and numeracy skills early on. “A lot of times there’s a perception that a student’s not ready for college, and in fact they are,” says Will Ehrenfeld, a former teacher who is now IBM’s full-time liaison to the Crown Heights school. “So we push the student in as soon as they’re ready.”

Competitive Spirit
That’s how kids like Radcliffe Saddler and the other five students who graduated at Barclays Center with him this year, ended up taking their first college courses during their freshman year. “I walked into that college class and I was like, ‘Well, this is new,’” says Saddler. He has deep-set dimples and often describes enrolling in P-TECH as “like winning the lottery.” So it’s no surprise he’s become something of a poster boy for the P-TECH system.

In fact, a wall-sized poster of Saddler standing next to President Obama hangs inside the school. It’s a snapshot of the day in 2013 when Obama spoke at P-TECH and declared, “The country should be doing everything in our power to give more kids the chance to go to schools just like this one.” Saddler was the lucky student chosen to introduce the president that day.

Saddler says attending P-TECH has been like competing in a race to see who could finish college first. “I was in this accelerated group, and I noticed certain kids were driven like me, so when you see another kid that’s driven like you, you’re like, ‘Well, I’m going to beat you,’” he says, smiling wide.

P-TECH works hard to foster that competitive spirit. It’s why posters of students who have been declared college-ready, including Saddler, line the cinderblock walls of the school, serving as not-so-subtle reminders to students that you, yes, you, can do it too. “When I first started, we always asked kids, ‘Why are your faces all over this school?’” remembers ShuDon Brown, who’s now entering her fourth year at P-TECH and is also on track to graduate early. “When they told us, it really was a motivator like, ‘I want my poster up there!’”

Principal Davis is counting on that drive. “In order to make sure more students complete at year six, students have to see some kids complete at year four,” he says. “It’s about motivating their peers.”

It’s also about ensuring that the model itself doesn’t become a “budget buster,” as Litow puts it. As long as a student is still technically in high school, city budgets can be used to pay for college courses, too. But once students are off the high school’s register, covering those costs requires outside funding. That means the more courses P-TECH students can take before they leave high school, the less third parties have to chip in.

Jobs Versus College
Getting kids a degree at P-TECH is only a means to an end. The end is the job itself. Students spend their student careers at P-TECH preparing for professional careers at IBM, from the workplace learning course freshman year to their IBM internships, which typically take place between junior and senior year. But Litow balks at comparisons between P-TECH’s approach and traditional vocational education.

“People are always looking for a way to drag down success,” he says. “These kids are not tracked for less opportunity. They’re empowered with more.”

As IBM interns, students have taken on roles as researchers, marketers, and bloggers, among other things. This year, all six P-TECH graduates were offered full-time jobs after graduation at starting salaries of at least $50,000. Three of the students, including Saddler, accepted the offer, while the other three, including Cletus Andoh, accepted full scholarships to four-year colleges.

Andoh, who is heading off to Syracuse University this fall, says the pull of a full time job—and more importantly, of a paycheck—was strong, but ultimately, his parents convinced him to stay in school. “We didn’t get that opportunity,” Andoh’s mother, Helena Asaah, says, referring to herself and her husband Augustus, who both come from Accra, Ghana. “I said, ‘No. You finish school for me, and then do your job.’”

Now, Andoh agrees with his mother. “I’ll have more opportunities with a four-year degree than with a two-year degree and will probably end up with a better job,” he says.

Andoh is within earshot of Saddler and other classmates who did accept the gigs, but they’re not surprised or offended to hear him say it. They’ve had the same conversation with their own parents since receiving the job offers. It’s the same conversation that is playing out in school districts around the world as they consider models like this one and whether they’re setting kids up for something less than the maximum amount of success.

Litow, unsurprisingly, believes this line of criticism is flawed, given how shockingly low the college completion rate is for low-income students. “What is the choice for the students who drop out of community college, take their high school diploma, and get a minimum wage job?” he asks, a flicker of agitation in his voice revealing just how often he’s had to answer this question. “What choice do they have? They have no choice.”

Litow isn’t the only one who feels that way. Larry Miller is a leading researcher at the Center for Reinventing Public Education and the dean of education at Florida State SouthWestern State College. He’s studied the impact of dual enrollment projects for years and agrees with Litow. “Given that they’re targeting this high-need population, I wouldn’t be concerned about the value of the two-year degree,” he says. “The biggest risk is that those kids are highly unlikely to complete their two-year degree at all.”

Nationwide, around 70 percent of students who attempt a two-year degree fail to finish in three. So far, the opposite is true at P-TECH, where Litow says around 70 percent of kids are on track to graduate with a high school diploma and a degree in six years or less.

Early results like these are one key reason the P-TECH model has been able to attract the business and government support it has. Evidence shows that low-income students who get a college degree are about half as likely to stay in the bottom fifth of income distribution. “These are young people who perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be gainfully employed in the future,” says Kathy Hochul, Lieutenant Governor of New York State, where there are now 33 P-TECH schools either in operation or development. “That’s the kind of investment we might not see an immediate return on, but it’s something that, philosophically, Governor Cuomo believes in.”

Proving Out
Still, not everyone is on board. There are those who worry creating even high-quality schools that serve primarily minority kids only perpetuate the growing problem of segregation in schools. Others scare easily at the idea of any educational model expanding as fast as P-TECH has when, in reality, it has only actually graduated six students. Some analyses of the limited data that does exist on P-TECH suggest that the school still has a long way to go in terms of proving its worth.

Last fall, for instance, teacher, author, and blogger Gary Rubenstein published the blog post, “Is P-Tech a Miracle School or a Failing School?” It compared the Algebra II and Geometry state test scores of P-TECH students to student scores at other schools across the state and found P-TECH’s to be among the lowest in New York City. According to Litow, that’s because P-TECH administers the tests to all students, not just the ones who have taken a given course. P-TECH does this as a means of figuring out which kids are ready for college level classes, no matter what grade they’re in. Rubenstein says that fact alone shouldn’t cause so steep a decline in scores. He also takes issue with the idea of making kids who have never studied a subject endure a three-hour test.

“There’s no reason to make a ninth grader take an 11th grade test. It’s a slight form of educational child abuse,” he says. Rubenstein argues these scores, and not whether six bright kids finished the program early, ought to be the true measure of whether P-TECH is succeeding and worthy of replication.

And yet, even as educators openly doubt the model, new schools open every year. That, too, could create a challenge for P-TECH, by making it even tougher for its leaders, who are still figuring it out, to maintain quality control over the model they created. SAP, for instance, runs a school in Queens that’s similar to P-TECH. It’s even called B-TECH, short for Business Technology Early College High School. But it also runs completely different programs in Oakland, Boston, and Vancouver, British Columbia, which are modeled after P-TECH, but operate as tracks within existing schools.

And not every corporate partner is as willing to hire graduates as IBM is. Kate Morgan, SAP’s head of corporate social responsibility, for one, is candid about the fact that some work still needs to be done within SAP to make sure that the company is prepared to hire these students. “As you can imagine that requires a lot of change within SAP, and within a lot of major corporations, to look at that associate degree as something that’s really valuable,” she says. “It’s really about changing the conversation from, ‘Oh this student went to community college,’ to, ‘This student has all these specialized skills, they’re truly qualified, they know all this about SAP, and they’re 20.’”

Which leads to another potential obstacle for P-TECH: ensuring the tech world actually has the appetite for the pipeline of college graduates this model, if it works, will create. It’s a tall order for an industry stubbornly unwilling to change its ways when it comes to diversity and hiring.

And yet, there are some signs cracks are beginning to form in the walls that surround these companies. Intel, for one, has committed $300 million to promote workplace diversity. Facebook, Pinterest, and other companies recently started piloting a program in which hiring managers must consider at least one minority candidate for every position, a practice the company co-opted from the NFL’s so-called Rooney Rule. And even major venture capital firms have committed to increasing diversity at their organizations, as well as within their portfolio companies.

P-TECH’s leaders, including Davis and Litow, are hoping that these groups will put action to these words sooner than later. Launching 40 schools in five years may seem fast, but to make a dent in the problem they’re trying to solve, they say, it’s not nearly fast enough.

Moving Faster
Principal Davis is standing at a podium in IBM’s Manhattan headquarters, carefully dabbing tears from his eyes. In a few hours, the six students sitting in front of him will board a chartered bus to the Barclays Center, where they will be recognized for the first time as college graduates. But for now, they’re high school seniors, sitting dutifully alongside their families and teachers, nodding and laughing while their principal tearfully shares one of his favorite stories about one student, Gabriel Rosa.

Rosa learned to program at an early age, and by the time he got to P-TECH in ninth grade, he had figured out how to prank other kids by hacking into their computers. It started off small, one device at a time. Then, one day, Principal Davis says, “He chose to use his talent to hack into the school’s main computer system.”

At this, Rosa chuckles. Sitting in the front row, he’s dressed sharply in a peach dress shirt and new blue suit with black lapels that he bought for graduation. He almost got away with the hack, he later says, but once he saw one of his technology teachers trying and failing to get the system back up and running, Rosa’s guilt got to him, and he ‘fessed up.

At so many other schools across the country, such a violation would get a kid suspended, or worse, expelled. But at this school—a school which has a clear mandate from the governor, the president, and one of the world’s biggest tech companies to foster the next generation of tech talent— Davis called Rosa into his office and, after a few stern words, presented him with a laptop. According to Rosa, the message was clear: Use your powers for good. Now, less than four years later, Rosa is about to start a full-time job as a digital commerce specialist at IBM, where he’ll specialize in user interface design.

“I knew we had to move faster,” Davis says, explaining why he did what he did in those early days of P-TECH. “Because if we don’t find a way to move faster, we will lose many more Gabriels.”


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