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Together We Rise: How P-TECH's Free College Degree Could Change the High School Model

A trio of Teach For America alumni now play an instrumental role in implementing an unconventional high school model that President Obama has called "a ticket to the middle class."
Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Each week, we'll bring you a story from our 25 years that illustrates the impact that our network of corps members and alumni have had on education. In our latest episode, we feature a trio of former TFA teachers who now play a crucial role in implementing an unconventional high school model that President Obama has called "a ticket into the middle class."

 

Earlier this month, we discussed the diversity gap in the tech industry and STEM careers. Last week, presidential candidates discussed the merits of free college for all students.

The correlation between a college education and future wages is strong. Last year, an Economic Policy Institute study found that Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more per hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. However, nearly 7 in 10 graduating college seniors left school with an average of $28,400 in student loan debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Such a figure could deter students in low-income households from even applying to higher education.

With the importance of a college degree increasing in tandem with the rising costs to obtain one, a new high school model called Pathways in Technology Early College High School—or P-TECH, for short—aims to level the playing field with an unconventional approach. Students who attend one of the P-TECH schools are offered simultaneous high school and college coursework within a fully integrated and rigorous curriculum. They move at their own pace within a four- to six-year timeframe and end up earning a high school diploma and a college associate degree in applied science.

 

 

And the cost? Tuition at a P-TECH school is free for each of its students, most of whom come from low-income, heavily minority communities. For example, at the approximately 500-student Brooklyn campus, 96 percent identify as African American or Hispanic, and 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

“The idea is that you finish with a degree that no one can take away from you,” said Teach For America alum Cliff Archey, a Program Manager of Education for P-TECH partner IBM. “The theory of change is that with that degree, whether or not you decide to continue your education, you at least have something that will guarantee you a path toward stability in the future.”

Archey, who also acts as IBM’s liaison for P-TECH’s campus in Newburgh, New York, has been committed to underserved students since his time as a 2009 Charlotte corps member. “I knew I wanted to stay in education,” he remembered. “In this capacity, I get to still work with teachers, but I also get to understand the larger landscape of what it’s like to implement a program like this and work on the infrastructure to bring systemic change.”

He isn’t the only TFA alum involved with P-TECH. Charlotte Johnson (New York '07) and Monoswita Saha (Connecticut '08) are the IBM liaisons for the Chicago and Norwalk, Connecticut campuses, respectively.

 

P-TECH Liaisons
From left to right: Charlotte Johnson (N.Y. '07), Cliff Archey (Charlotte '09), and Monoswita Saha (Connecticut '08).

 

“[Chicago Public Schools] and the city colleges had not worked together in this capacity until now,” Johnson said. “It’s exciting to be a part of that collaboration and the public-private partnership with IBM.

“I've seen 11th grade students earn 26 college credits and go on to have paid internships at IBM, It makes me think back to my students I taught in my first years of teaching at P.S. 58 in the Bronx and how having an educational opportunity like P-TECH may have shifted their trajectories.”

Saha echoes the sentiment. “I taught at an alternative high school where my students were continuously in and out of the incarceration system,”she recalled. “They were severely disenchanted with the very concept of education, chiefly because they couldn’t see how their education would lead them to employment.

“At the same time, these students had clear ambition. It was obvious to me that low income and minority students require tangible pathways to college and to careers for education to be relevant and truly break the cycle of poverty. I heavily stress a focus on pathways to careers, not to jobs.”

At P-TECH, these pathways involve support from Archey and his fellow liaisons, who have made their mark on everything from the curricula to the mentor program, where each student is paired with an IBM employee. The advocacy doesn’t end at graduation, either. If students choose to pursue a job with IBM, their application is fast-tracked for review. In fact, three recent Brooklyn grads have accepted full-time positions.

 

A group of engineering students preparing a machine on a paved lot.
It's Engineers Week at P-TECH, where students earn a high school diploma and an associate degree in applied science.

 

However, the students’ educational experience is far from one-dimensional. “We want to be clear that once you’re here, you’re not locked into working in the technology field,”Archey said. “If you want to be a doctor or lawyer, you still have that freedom of choice.”

It’s not lip service, according to Azariah McLymore, a 10th grader at the Newburgh campus who wants to be a pediatrician. “Now I have college credits that will carry over to a different major if I wanted to,”she said. “Also, P-TECH has offered us networking opportunities to meet doctors and learn more about their careers.”

School visits are plentiful at P-TECH; in recent years, the Brooklyn campus has hosted incoming Secretary of Education John King and even President Barack Obama, who called P-TECH “a ticket into the middle class.”

King was just as effusive in his praise. “When you talk to kids at P-TECH, they’re very clear why they’re there,”he said. “They understand the relationship between their math class today and success in the workforce.”

One such student is Angel Reyes, who takes classes at the Norwalk campus and hopes to major one day in microbiology.

 

A young woman with brown hair and glasses talking science with a blonde woman, at a table.
Angel Reyes (right) is more confident about her college dream thanks to her IBM mentor, Kate Laffer.

 

“The teachers really work with us to make sure we get the material,” she said. “Also, my mentor, Kate Laffer, gives me feedback on everything from business ethics to public speaking, so I see how my classes would connect with a job at IBM.”

Those words are music to Archey, Johnson, and Saha’s ears. A goal without a plan is a wish, and they have equipped their students at P-TECH to be ready for the road ahead.

“It can get busy, but I don’t regret doing this at all,” said 10th grader Salomon Zapata, an aspiring software engineer at the Norwalk campus. “I’m more confident of what I want to do, and now I know that this is what it takes to get there.”

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