Scaling STEM Pathways Statewide Through P-TECH
Things move fast in New York. Since joining the Pathways to Prosperity Network in 2013, grades 9-14 pathways have taken center stage as a scalable, replicable solution to preparing the state’s young people for college and careers. In 2011, the first cohort of students entered the 9th grade at Brooklyn P-TECH: a partnership between IBM, New York City Department of Education, and the City University of New York. Today, these students are seniors, and the state legislature has set aside funding to create 26 more P-TECH sites serving nearly 10,000 students across the state.
Earlier this month, Jobs for the Future Program Manager Sheila Jackson spoke with Robin Willner, Director of the Leadership Council for New York State P-TECH, about the future growth of P-TECH and the launch of their new website, P-TECH.org, as well as other key elements of the model.
SJ: The new website is very user-friendly and filled with lots of helpful resources like case studies, sample curricula, and planning templates. Is it correct to assume that P-TECH can be adapted to fit any regional context with the right group of willing partners?
RW: The website is designed to help anybody who is thinking about developing a [P-TECH] pathway or more generally interested in redesigning secondary and postsecondary education around middle-skills jobs. The power of this site and the power of the model is that, it has integrity across all components at each school. It can also enhance models that focus on one specific element, like mentoring or project-based learning. But there is no question that the primary purpose of the website is to learn from others who have done this in the past.
SJ: How do you address issues of fidelity during implementation? This site describes the “Key Elements” of P-TECH, but I’m curious to know how similarly or differently these elements actually get implemented in different schools.
RW: The characteristic that is going to have the largest impact on how things look is the specific industry. We work backwards from this clear focus on the nature of the industry and the actual jobs for which the pathway will prepare students and create a real talent pipeline. If it’s a job in health, IT, or advanced manufacturing, that has the largest impact on opportunities for project- based learning, internships, and other kinds of work-site visits. When you walk into a P-TECH site, you automatically know what job students are preparing for. Classrooms don’t look like your typical classroom: there’s lots of group work, project-based learning and students in the school have different schedules because of individualized needs. And there’s always a sense of a college AND professional environment.
The rural or urban area surrounding a P-TECH site has less impact once you’re inside the school. When I go to the Mohawk Valley [a very rural region in upstate New York], it looks like a P-TECH. What is different in rural versus urban areas happens at the school district; there is a big difference in designing and managing a P-TECH in a rural versus an urban region. It’s more complicated to organize and govern if you’re serving a number of school districts and high schools rather than being in a city school district where you’re serving students in one school.
SJ: How do you share best practices and integrate measures for continuous improvement across the state? What types of communities of practice exist, either within individual districts or regional clusters of districts and schools?
RW: That’s one of the great things and the power of the statewide network. We have the opportunity twice a year to bring people together; we also have a webinar series and a buddy system for a planning team [for new P-TECH sites] where they get partnered with a school leader from an operating school. We are also just starting to bring people together by industry—for instance, we’re going to have meetings focused on clean and sustainable energy and advanced manufacturing. And we look forward to building the archive of great practices on ptech.org.
SJ: How do you train and develop P-TECH teachers? I read a great blog post on the IBM website by a former teacher from P-TECH Brooklyn who had a career as a software developer before teaching. Is this typical?
RW: Right now we are germinating some new great ideas around professional development, it’s really our next frontier. We have staff willing to try something new, a new applied way of learning, but one of our challenges is to make sure that we’re getting the faculty, not just the students, to engage with industry.
SJ: The Capital Region has received some national attention recently with the first P-TECH opening in Troy, New York this past fall. QUESTAR III is a well-established BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) in the Capital Region that serves an important intermediary function. Could you talk a little bit about how BOCES and other organizations across the state support P-TECH schools?
RW: BOCES are regional centers that have a history of providing career and technical education and are a particularly important mechanism for large school districts. It’s not the only way to do it, but [BOCES] have the history and the expertise, although not all BOCES are equal. One thing we’ve learned by creating P-TECH schools is the power of the business intermediary, especially if you’re going to engage small enterprises. For example, if a principal has to organize 8-10 businesses on their steering committee—that’s really a difficult lift. However, what we found is that these business intermediaries—local chambers, industry trade associations, WIBs—have the type of organizational structure and experience with public-private partnerships and visibility in the business community to play an important role.
SJ: A recent article in the Albany Times Union positioned P-TECH as one of the forerunners in a national movement to address the “changing needs of today’s learners.” Based on your experience seeing P-TECH grow, how would you characterize these changing needs and how do they align with the P-TECH framework?
RW: First, and students may not articulate this, but they need a post-secondary education. Second, and this is something they would articulate, is that they need to understand why their education is relevant, engaging, and important… and the hook is to connect their education to real jobs and real opportunities. For too many years, the bargain that we offered young people is to go to high school, make sure you do your homework and take rigorous courses… Why? Do that for 4 years, and we’ll let you go to college and do that again for another 4 years. But if you go to P-TECH, it will take you 6 years and you’re going to begin college and have a college I.D. from day one.
SJ: Could you talk a little bit about the process of scaling P-TECH? Were the challenges you faced or are currently facing the ones you expected?
RW: There have been and continue to be policy and regulatory issues, and the P-TECH design in the end touches all of them. Teacher certification, scheduling, Associate’s degree requirements, high school requirements...how do you calculate the graduation rate of a program that doesn't graduate anyone in four years? There’s also the finance issues. In general the BOCES, community colleges, and high schools involved are really pushing the boundaries of the current system and we will continue to address these issues, not as exceptions, but really trying to adapt and enhance the policy environment. For things that come up on a case-by-case basis, we’re trying to systemize them for the model and learn from programs that struggle with issues like student recruitment, for instance. What has been really gratifying is to see the acceptance of and excitement about the model in all kinds of communities.
SJ: Do you believe the P-TECH model could be implemented in states in the Network that may not have the level of financial and political support that the P-TECH model has received? If so, what are some essential “early wins” that you believe helped garner such strong state-level support in New York even before the first cohort of graduates completes the 6-year pathway?
RW: I think some of the early wins have been in attendance and retention rates at schools and seeing the high rates of students taking college-level courses. It was evident that the model is very motivating for students. Last summer, when the first students at P-TECH Brooklyn advanced to paid internships, more than 42 students walked into the world of work at IBM and knew what to do and how to behave. And these students were not just in areas where they were going to get jobs; they were all over the company. The Business Council of New York State has also been amazing. They have been part of the planning at the state-level for expanding P-TECH; they have an agenda to make NY the best possible place for businesses to grow and P-TECH is on that agenda.
To learn more about the P-TECH model and peruse the tools and case studies, visit http://www.ptech.org.