Why P-TECH High School in Brooklyn may be future of U.S. economy

CROWN HEIGHTS, Brooklyn (PIX11) – It’s a three-year-old school with only about 300 students, but Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, is being called, by a very highly-placed source, the future of America’s presence in the global economy. That source is none other than President Barack Obama.

In his State of the Union Address last February, the President praised the high school that takes up a floor of the Paul Robeson Educational Complex in Crown Heights. He pointed out that P-TECH has students from grades 9-14, and at the end of that six-year education, students receive college associates degrees in computers and engineering.

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“It’s mind blowing,” said P-TECH third year student Cletus Andoh. “Plus it being free, it just makes it a whole lot better,” he said. Andoh commutes an hour-and-a-half each way from the North Bronx to be at school every day.

He was part of the first class of 100 students to attend P-TECH. Some of that group was reading at elementary school levels when they first entered 9th grade in the fall of 2011. Now, 87% of that class has completed at least one college course.

In the case of Andoh and dozens of students like him, they’ve completed multiple college courses, which are taught by faculty from the City University of New York’s City Tech campus, in Downtown Brooklyn. The professors make the 40 block trip to the school multiple times a week to teach classes and to keep office hours.

“I’ve taken probably close to ten classes,” Andoh told PIX11 News. He’d just come out of a college level calculus course to talk.

His enthusiasm was strongly shared by other students, about 80% of whom are male, and nearly 100% of whom are black or Latino.

“I’m pretty excited,” said one of them, Roman Brito. “My mom jumped at the opportunity [to send me here] when she first heard about it.”

Brito commutes an hour a day from the South Bronx. “I don’t know any other school where I can get two free years of college just for an hour long trip,” he said. Both he and Andoh had high praise for the one additional plus that they get from their school on Albany Avenue.

“Beginning next summer,” said Grace Suh of IBM, “we’ll have about 75 students…in paid internships.” Note that key word:  paid. She said that the students will be doing substantial work at IBM facilities, and will be compensated for it during the summers.

And then, according to Suh, “When students graduate successfully, they’ll be first in line for jobs at IBM.” It’s a commitment that the company, which ranks 20th among the Fortune 500, made with the city as part of the school’s creation.

It’s one of many key elements that have piqued the interest of President Obama.

“I will tell him that when I was in high school, I entered a writing contest with the subject ‘Is the U.S. Ready for a Black President,’” said PTECH Principal Rashid Davis.  “So I’ve been waiting for him for 27 years!”

Davis oversees the operation and mission of the school that brings IBM, CUNY and the Dept. of Education together. Between meetings with internship sponsors, countless delegations from across the country and the world interested in the P-TECH model, and now White House advance team members and Secret Service supervisors, Davis still manages to keep his school noticeably orderly and relatively quiet, especially considering it’s full of 14- to 17-year-olds.

He said that the key is to make it clear to students that by acquiring strong skills in technological areas, combined with opportunities to use them, they’ll do well in a global economy that relies increasingly on technical knowledge.

“How do you make sure students aren’t just leaving with a high school diploma?” Davis asked, adding that the goal of his school’s unorthodox six-year combination of educational and vocational training is to ensure that young people who are not from well-off families are assured entry to the middle class.

“The President really has everything in this model of how we can capture the competitiveness for the future,” said Davis. While the principal is biased in favor of his own institution, the President believes strongly enough in the school to not only visit it on Friday, but to also deliver what the White House is describing as a significant policy address there.

President Obama is expected to call for a proliferation of P-TECHs nationwide in an effort to strengthen the country’s place among other advanced nations that have better prepared people joining their workforces.

In full disclosure, the wife of this reporter is an employee of CUNY who works closely with P-TECH and its programs. President Barack Obama is scheduled to address the students and faculty of P-TECH, as well as the press corps, on Friday afternoon.