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Shanaes Akhtar is a fifth-year student at P-TECH Brooklyn planning to graduate next spring with a high school diploma and associate degree.
Shanaes Akhtar is a fifth-year student at P-TECH Brooklyn planning to graduate next spring with a high school diploma and associate degree. Credit: Photo courtesy of Shanaes Akhtar and Charlotte Lysohir

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Shanaes Akhtar first heard about Pathways in Technology Early College High (P-TECH) as a middle schooler. She read an article about the Brooklyn high school and learned that students there spend six years instead of the traditional four but they graduate with an associate degree along with their high school diploma – all for free. That caught her eye.

Shanaes is going into her fifth year at P-TECH Brooklyn and she expects to graduate with both degrees next June. Like many of her peers, she will manage to finish all her coursework earlier than the six-year timeline the school lays out. Looking ahead to enrolling in a four-year college, she said the practice of balancing work, college and high school all at the same time has fortified her against the stress freshmen typically face.

“It doesn’t come easily to regular high school students, but P-TECH, it helps us adjust to it so when we leave with our two-year degree, we’re not lost,” Shanaes said. “We don’t have the anxiety that these new freshmen students have. We’re prepared.”

P-TECH Brooklyn is a partnership among IBM, the New York City public school system and the New York City College of Technology (City Tech). It opened in 2011 and has spawned a movement. IBM has helped open 110 other P-TECH schools across the U.S. as well as in Morocco, Australia and Taiwan, according to Jennifer Ryan Crozier, president of the IBM Foundation, who oversees the effort.

In each place, the P-TECH model brings together a school district, a community college and local industry. More than 500 businesses partner with various schools around the world, helping teachers develop work-relevant curricula, mentoring students, offering paid internships and standing ready to hire P-TECH grads.

Ryan Crozier said momentum has been building steadily for P-TECH and models like it that bring together businesses and schools to better prepare students.

“Everywhere we go, business leaders are concerned about the skills gap and what business can really do to step up and contribute,” she said.

Over the last few years, seven states have lined up to expand the model beyond New York. The California legislature set aside $10 million this summer for new P-TECH schools. North Carolina and Minnesota are discussing similar plans.

Related: A district that pays students for their work

Congress’ reauthorization of the Perkins Act in July seems destined to give another boost to the P-TECH model’s momentum. The act was first passed in 2006, to support career preparation programs. With federal funding, it encourages partnerships across K-12, higher ed and business sectors. The new law takes effect in 2019, and over the next six years, the government has designated $1.3 billion for this work, money states could use to open new schools.

“We don’t have the anxiety that these new freshmen students have. We’re prepared.”

Much of IBM’s work in expanding the P-TECH network is helping states figure out how to pay for a high school program that promises a free associate degree. Ryan Crozier said some states already allow for that, while others have to pass new legislation – and usually redirect some funding. P-TECH schools don’t simply tack on two extra years to a traditional four-year high school program. As early as the summer after ninth grade, students can begin taking college courses. And they continue with a mix of classes until they graduate.

Ryan Crozier said one-third of all P-TECH students graduate ahead of the six-year schedule. The P-TECH network boasts an on-time community college graduation rate at four times the national average. Attendance is also strong, Ryan Crozier said, which indicates students are engaged.

Shanaes spent her summer as an IBM intern working on a social media project related to Teacher Advisor with Watson. She said the internship taught her how to be adaptable and introduced her to a corporate work environment. It also gave her important networking opportunities – an IBM vice president put her in touch with people at all the colleges she wants to apply to.

That’s all by design. P-TECH schools are in communities with high concentrations of poverty, serving students that are historically underrepresented in colleges. Helping students in these communities find mentors and make connections with industry leaders expands their personal networks, opening doors that otherwise would have remained closed.

Shanaes is on track to get her high school diploma at the end of this academic year along with an associate degree in computer system technologies. From there, she plans to get her bachelor’s degree. And, also by design, she’ll have marketable skills she can capitalize on even before she gets her next diploma.

This story about career-focused high schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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