By AL BAKER
Published: October 21, 2012
Flakes of green paint are peeling from the third-floor windowsills. Some desks are patched with tape, others etched with graffiti. The view across the street is of a row of boarded-up brownstones.
The building and its surroundings in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, may look run-down, but inside 150 Albany Avenue may sit the future of the country’s vocational education: The first 230 pupils of a new style of school that weaves high school and college curriculums into a six-year program tailored for a job in the technology industry.
By 2017, the first wave of students of P-Tech — Pathways in Technology Early College High School — is expected to emerge with associate’s degrees in applied science in computer information systems or electromechanical engineering technology, following a course of studies developed in consultation with I.B.M.
“I mean, in 10th grade, doing college work?” said Monesia McKnight, 15, as she sat in an introduction to computer systems course taught by a college professor. “How great is that?”
The United States has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Yet many with four-year degrees are facing a transforming economy where jobs require less generalized types of education and more of the skills that many college graduates lack, in science, technology, engineering or math.
Into this breach, school systems around the country have been aiming to start new high schools like P-Tech. Officials in Chicago were so taken by New York’s school that they opened five similar schools this year with corporate partners in telecommunications and technology. Besides New York and Illinois, education officials in Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee have committed to creating such schools, and the Obama administration has recommended that Congress provide more money for vocational education — the preferred name is career and technical education, or C.T.E. — to promote this approach.
A year from now, New York City plans to open two more schools just like P-Tech, focusing on other growing industries in the city, possibly including health care. A fourth one is planned to open in September 2014. The State Board of Regents is also trying to develop assessment exams for this type of school, perhaps one that could be substituted for one of the usual Regents tests.
“When we view high-quality C.T.E. programs, we see how engaged those students are and what clear aspirations they have for their future,” said John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner. “Unfortunately, that’s not always present in some of our struggling schools.”
P-Tech, which began last year with a ninth grade and now has a 10th grade, is inside Paul Robeson High School, which is being phased out because of poor performance. Students attend from 8:35 a.m. to 4:06 p.m., in 10-period days that intersperse traditional classes like math and English with technology and business-centric courses like “workplace learning,” which teaches networking, critical thinking and presentation skills. Second-year students are offered physics and global studies as well as the business courses and college-level courses in speech or logic and problem solving — or both. There is also a six-week summer academy for geometry.
The objective is to prepare students for entry-level technology jobs paying around $40,000 a year, like software specialists who answer questions from I.B.M.’s business customers or “deskside support” workers who answer calls from PC users, with opportunities for advancement.
Stanley S. Litow, the president of I.B.M.’s International Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, and a former deputy schools chancellor in New York, said that the P-Tech curriculum was mapped backward: I.B.M.’s own employees were analyzed to learn what skills a student would need.
Each student also is paired with a mentor from the company, as is the principal, Rashid F. Davis; students take trips to I.B.M. facilities to learn such things as how computer chips are made; the company helped train the school’s 18 teachers, and it provides a full-time liaison based at the school to work with faculty from the New York City College of Technology and the City University of New York, which also helped develop the course work. Mr. Litow said that while no positions at I.B.M. could be guaranteed six years in the future, the company would give P-Tech students preference for openings. They would also be well-trained for other information technology jobs, Mr. Litow said.
“Because that is the problem,” he said. “Too few kids have these skills.”
P-Tech students are chosen by lottery, with academics not factored in, said Josh Thomases, the Education Department’s deputy chief academic officer. Mr. Davis said that 52 percent of last year’s ninth graders scored below proficiency on their math and English eighth-grade exams. But he noted that 76 of those 102 pupils had already passed the English and Integrated Algebra Regents exams. He said 16 took a college class over the summer at the New York City College of Technology, and since school began this year, they and 34 others are enrolled in at least one college class that is taught at P-Tech by one of three professors from the college.
“At the center of all this is the notion that there are young people who have as much potential to learn what we think of as basic academics as anyone, but whose learning style, whose interests and preferences are for doing things where they can see: ‘What does this mean? Why am I doing this?’ ” said Stephen F. Hamilton, a professor of human development at Cornell University who has studied the success of Germany’s apprenticeship programs.
“Right now,” he added, “I think what P-Tech is trying to do is laudable.”
There were 600 applicants for the second freshman class, or about six times as many as for the first.
This is despite the school’s threadbare appearance. Mr. Davis said he pours most of his resources into academics — even using Robeson’s beat-up desks to save on costs.
“You have to know where to place your priorities, and our priorities are in the intellectual capital of the people that we hire,” said Mr. Davis, who added that 88 percent of his students were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (the citywide average is about 75 percent).
Whether the school is worth the investment depends on how it is compared. Since most vocational schools finish in four years — Mr. Litow said some P-Tech students could “be on a fast track” to finish in four — the six-year program costs the city more. But most of the jobs the students are aiming for require at least a two-year associate’s degree as well. Absent financial aid, New York City’s community colleges charge $3,900 a year in tuition.
“And what is the return on the individual student?” Mr. Litow said. “It is the difference between a low-wage job with no career and the solid wages and skills to have a productive middle-class job.”
Several students at P-Tech said they felt the school was giving them a new start in academia, by appealing to their passions for learning something that moved them. Some were already looking beyond the prospect of an I.B.M. job, like Eketa Roberts, 15, who said she wanted to be a lawyer, possibly in technology; Cierra Copeland, 15, who wants to be a cardiac surgeon; and Clifton McDonald, 15, who wants to create technology that improves on prosthetics, and also write fiction. Clifton has already written five chapters of a novel about a boy with amnesia, “who woke up in a world that he doesn’t completely recognize.”
Another, Lamar Agard, 14, noted the practical realities, too.
“I’m getting an associate degree,” he said as he sat in his ninth-grade math class. “It’s giving me the opportunity of getting my college degree without having to pay for it.”
Recently in Dan Berkley’s 10th-grade physics class — which was being taught in part by Brian Lewis, a math teacher — the students were well dressed and some even had briefcases. Amare Lewis, 15, said he never wore a tie to school until now.
“If I’m going to take these classes, and be part of I.B.M., I feel like I want to dress well,” he said