What If the Answer Isn't College but Longer High School?

Students attend P-Tech programs in New York for six years. They can leave with a high-school diploma, an associate’s degree, and a chance to work for IBM.

President Barack Obama visits a math classroom at Pathways in Technology Early College High School  (Charles Dharapak / AP )

Few 18-year-olds can say that they earn more than $50,000 a year work­ing at a For­tune 500 com­pany in New York City. Rad­cliffe Sad­dler can.

The Brook­lyn teen­ager gradu­ated in June from the pub­lic school known as P-Tech, short for Path­ways in Tech­no­logy Early Col­lege High School. He en­rolled in the fall of 2011, as part of the school’s in­aug­ur­al class of 103 stu­dents. The strong em­phas­is on math, sci­ence, and writ­ing sur­prised him as a fresh­man, though he’d al­ways been a good stu­dent.

“I did not un­der­stand the level of work it would re­quire,” he re­calls, “and that, some­times, it would re­quire me to give up hanging out with my friends.”

But the sac­ri­fice was worth it. Sad­dler fol­lowed the tra­ject­ory laid out for P-Tech stu­dents and en­rolled in his first col­lege class—in­tro­duct­ory en­gin­eer­ing—after he com­pleted the ninth grade. By the time he gradu­ated, he earned both a high-school dip­loma and an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree in com­puter sci­ence—not to men­tion a job of­fer from IBM. He fin­ished the six-year pro­gram in just four in­cred­ibly busy years.

P-Tech star­ted in 2011 as a pub­lic-private part­ner­ship between IBM, the New York City De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion, the City Uni­versity of New York, and New York City Col­lege of Tech­no­logy. At the depth of the eco­nom­ic re­ces­sion, city edu­cat­ors were look­ing for a way to con­nect high schools with po­ten­tial employers. They found a will­ing part­ner in IBM for an ex­per­i­ment to give students a bet­ter handle on the skills they’d need in the work­place. They took over an old build­ing of a fail­ing school in the Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hood of Crown Heights, which has a his­tory of high crime and ra­cial ten­sion.

P-Tech re­vo­lu­tion­izes the struc­ture of high school by en­cour­aging stu­dents to attend the school for grades 9 through 14. This es­sen­tially ex­tends high school in­to the early years of col­lege. Over those six years, the goal is for stu­dents to com­plete both a high-school dip­loma and an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree. Gradu­ates can either enter the work­force equipped with a post­sec­ond­ary de­gree—no tu­ition, so no stu­dent debt—or con­tin­ue on to a tra­di­tion­al col­lege with a bevy of class credits in hand.

Stan Litow is IBM’s vice pres­id­ent of cor­por­ate cit­izen­ship and cor­por­ate af­fairs—and a former deputy chan­cel­lor of New York City pub­lic schools—who was intimately in­volved with the found­ing of P-Tech. “The idea of get­ting in­to the work­force with just a high-school dip­loma is an idea from the past,” he says now. “We needed to come up with a new mod­el.”

The one in Brook­lyn in­volves an in­tens­ive part­ner­ship with a big busi­ness. IBM helped design the school and con­tin­ues to provide P-Tech stu­dents with ment­ors, in­tern­ships, a ded­ic­ated staff per­son, and count­less hours of pro bono work—an in­vest­ment that Litow fig­ures is worth $1 mil­lion to $2 mil­lion a year. All P-Tech gradu­ates are first in line for avail­able jobs at IBM that fit their skill level.

The most in­triguing part of the P-Tech ex­per­i­ment is its fo­cus on dis­ad­vant­aged teen­agers who don’t usu­ally get col­lege-level train­ing in sci­ence and math. No en­trance ex­am is re­quired, as it is for the Bronx High School of Sci­ence and New York’s oth­er elite pub­lic schools. Fully 95 per­cent of the stu­dents are Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans or His­pan­ics, and 80 per­cent are poor enough to qual­i­fy for sub­sid­ized school lunches; nearly three-quar­ters are male. The ma­jor­ity of them would be the first in their fam­il­ies to at­tend col­lege.

“If you look at who is get­ting the 21st-cen­tury jobs, they are not chil­dren of col­or from low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods,” Litow says. In 1970, only 6 per­cent of the poor held a col­lege de­gree, a fig­ure that has barely budged—it’s now at 9 per­cent—in the dec­ades since. “If you don’t get at the core is­sue of edu­ca­tion and skills,” he warns, “then you will not solve this prob­lem.”

The ac­claim P-Tech has drawn as a mod­el of in­nov­a­tion for high schools in poor neigh­bor­hoods, as well as a way to make col­lege easi­er to af­ford, earned a vis­it from Pres­id­ent Obama in 2013. The P-Tech mod­el has ex­pan­ded to 40 oth­er schools in New York, Con­necti­c­ut, and Illinois, with nu­mer­ous busi­ness part­ners, in­clud­ing Cisco Sys­tems, Mo­torola, and Ve­r­i­zon.

P-Tech’s strategy is to over­haul the tra­di­tion­al pub­lic-high school ex­per­i­ence, in everything from the cal­en­dar to the role of ment­ors in stu­dents’ lives. The flow of the school day—and year—looks dif­fer­ent. Groggy teen­agers start the day (when, re­search shows, their brains are still wak­ing up) with phys­ic­al edu­ca­tion classes, and they wait un­til 9:20 or so for aca­dem­ics. The school day lasts un­til 4:06 p.m. Sum­mer va­ca­tion is lim­ited to two weeks in Au­gust. Dur­ing stu­dents’ first year, in ninth grade, they take no courses in sci­ence or his­tory, giv­ing them more time to work on read­ing and math—to “bring them to a high­er level,” says Rashid Dav­is, P-Tech’s prin­cip­al.

The ment­ors, culled from all corners of IBM, are im­port­ant. They com­mit to check­ing in with their stu­dent for 30 minutes every week, either on­line or in per­son, and they of­fer ad­vice on everything from course­work to how to be­have as an in­tern. Sad­dler had an in­tern­ship at IBM Glob­al In­sur­ance, re­search­ing the in­sur­ance in­dustry.

By far, the biggest be­ne­fit to at­tend­ing P-Tech is the as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree that every gradu­ate earns, either in com­puter sci­ence or in en­gin­eer­ing. This em­phas­is on at­tend­ing col­lege-level classes, some­times on a com­munity-col­lege cam­pus, begins in ninth grade. “The de­cision to enter P-Tech is the de­cision to choose college,” says an IBM guide to de­vel­op­ing tech­no­logy-cent­ric schools such as P-Tech.

Earn­ing an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree along with a high school dip­loma makes col­lege more af­ford­able. P-Tech stu­dents pay noth­ing, not even for books, for “the opportun­ity to com­plete a post­sec­ond­ary cre­den­tial,” Dav­is says. “I see stu­dents try­ing as hard as they can in spite of all of their cir­cum­stances.”

Many of the stu­dents from its in­aug­ur­al class are ex­pec­ted to gradu­ate by June 2017, six years after the pro­gram star­ted. Six of them, in­clud­ing Sad­dler, have fin­ished two years early. Three of those have taken jobs at IBM; the oth­ers at­tend col­lege.

Sad­dler chose a job as an as­so­ci­ate ana­lyst in mar­ket re­search at IBM be­cause “I want to own my own com­pany,” he ex­plains. His fath­er is a man­ager at a construc­tion com­pany, and his moth­er is work­ing to­ward a nurs­ing de­gree; the fam­ily moved from Ja­maica when Rad­cliffe, the eld­est of three sons, was 6 years old. “Hav­ing this busi­ness ex­per­i­ence is amaz­ing,” he adds. “What oth­er 18-year-old could say, ‘I worked at a For­tune 500 com­pany right out of high school’?”

But Sad­dler hasn’t giv­en up on fur­ther edu­ca­tion. With an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree in hand, he plans to at­tend col­lege on a part-time basis start­ing next spring.