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HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS TAKING COLLEGE CLASSES? By Malia Rulon Herman

Maplewood author Tina Kelley’s newest book demystifies an exciting new education model

Imagine being able to complete the first two years of college while still in high school – at no additional cost. Now imagine if this opportunity were available to everyone, especially students who otherwise wouldn’t attend college.


Maplewood resident Tina Kelley’s newest book, Breaking Barriers: How P-TECH Schools Create a Pathway from High School to College to Career, shows how that is possible under a new educational model that is catching on in hundreds of districts across the country. Her co-author is Stanley S. Litow, who as former Deputy Schools Chancellor for New York City and former President of the IBM Foundation, was integral in developing the P-TECH schools’ program.


So what’s P-TECH? It stands for Pathways in Technology Early College High School, and was developed by IBM and launched in Brooklyn in 2011. P-TECH schools offer a “smooth and supported” six-year route from 9th grade to college to a career in the technology sector.


“Everyone should have a smooth, supportive high school experience, right?” says Kelley, explaining that while the model is focused on places where the kids are at risk, many of the components of the program would benefit anyone: teachers who believe in you and expect excellence; challenging coursework; summer classes and access to tutoring and weekend study halls; guidance counselors; frequent student assessments; industry mentors and paid internships.

“We have the tools to build schools in which all children thrive. It’s long past time we recognized that doing so is among our society’s most important tasks,” writes Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in the book’s foreword.


Students who enroll in this free program graduate from high school, as well as earn their associate degree from a local community college. The program takes six years, although some students have completed it in four.


P-TECH graduates are then given priority for an entry-level job at one of the program’s partner companies, most of which are in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Some P-TECH schools also offer pathways into health care or teaching.


At a P-TECH school in northern New York, for example, students can earn associate degrees in human services, health sciences and chemical dependency counseling, leading to entry-level jobs as activities leaders, dental assistants, care coordinators and resident counselors. Additional education and accreditation can lead to jobs as a social worker, case manager, substance abuse counselor, clinical dietician, medical coder, massage therapist or EMT.

Maplewood resident Tina Kelley’s newest book, "Breaking Barriers: How P-TECH Schools Create a Pathway from High School to College to Career," shows what is possible under a new educational model that is catching on in hundreds of districts across the country.

This said, four out of five recent P-TECH graduates have headed off to four-year colleges, with two years already completed, without debt, with some studying for degrees in fields unrelated to their associate degree. The rest have gone to work for technology companies, usually those associated with their program.


The companies, including IBM, re-worked the qualifications for entry-level jobs, which previously had required four-year college degrees, to be more flexible. As a result, P-TECH can offer access to a free, two-year college degree in STEM to students who might not otherwise have it, while also creating a pool of qualified and skilled workers from diverse backgrounds.


Many students are profiled in the book: Irann Martinez is studying pre-med at the University of Illinois, with dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. Xavier Gutierrez is doing a yearlong apprenticeship in cybersecurity at IBM as he applies to veterinary schools. Gabriel Rosa has been promoted twice at IBM and now works there as a software developer.


“The model does not lock students in to one future; rather it prepares them for many,” Kelley and Litow write in Breaking Barriers.


Open enrollment is an essential feature of the P-TECH model. Students are actively recruited, but chosen by a lottery, not by grades, test scores, recommendations, or vocal parents. It’s part of a culture of equity that seeks to remove the barriers to entry and level the playing field.

Co-author Stanley S. Litow was integral in developing the P-TECH schools’ program.

“Education is a civil right, a service provided by the government that must be available to all in equal measure and quality. Full stop,” Kelley and Litow write.


Coming after a year of massive social-justice unrest and lengthy school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic that have widened the equity gap, Kelley’s tightly written book delves into topics such as how raising expectations affects a student’s achievement, the benefit that comes from students having a teacher who looks like them and the shortage of teachers of color. It’s also sprinkled with the stories of actual students overcoming challenges to succeed in the program.


One student, for example, entered P-TECH with a near-failing score in math. After doing well on a problem during the first day of geometry, the student’s teacher encouraged him to sign up for a more advanced class. With teachers who believe in their students, encouragement like this goes a long way, and the student ended up graduating as his class valedictorian and earning a full scholarship to Cornell.


“What would happen in a school that didn’t do that?” Kelley asks. “The waste of potential that goes on is just tragic. That’s the cornerstone (of P-TECH) and it is applicable to other schools as well.”

Kelley, who worked on The New York Times metro desk for 10 years (her team won a Pulitzer prize) and has written a number of books of nonfiction and poetry, sits on the schools committee for the SOMA Community Coalition on Race. She has been sharing new data she uncovered while writing the book in hopes that our district’s Intentional Integration Plan will be implemented in a way to promote equity.


“It’s not just racial inclusion and socioeconomic inclusion. It’s also ELL (English Language Learners) and special education because a lot of those kids would be in a separate classroom or a pull out, but at P-TECH are thriving.”


The P-TECH program serves more than 150,000 students in nearly 250 schools in 12 states and 28 countries. Many P-TECH programs are schools within schools, making it easier for districts to adopt the model. There are three in New Jersey – in Burlington City, New Brunswick, and Paterson. A fourth school is planned for Trenton.


The current P-TECH funding model is based on the percentage of free and reduced-price lunches provided to students, but Kelley says the hope is to free up funding so that every school district will be able to offer the P-TECH option to students. At present, P-TECH schools are funded through a combination of state and federal revenues, with the majority coming from local school districts. States typically supplement this with federal funding for career and technical schools through the Carl D. Perkins Act, as well as with other state planning grants that tend to target disadvantaged areas.


But the principal at the first P-TECH school in Brooklyn, Rashid Davis, believes that every high school should be a P-TECH school. “We’re talking about the experiences and opportunities that can change generations,” he writes in the book’s afterword.


“One of my favorite statistics here is the number of students hired by IBM who were low performers in middle school,” he explains. “They were told they could never graduate from college. They couldn’t imagine they would not only complete a college degree but also be earning a competitive salary at a Fortune 500 company in a high-growth career before they were out of their teens.”


As for opening a P-TECH school in every high school, Kelley is 100 percent behind that. “I would also be happy, in the meantime, as an interim step, to have one in every district,” she says.

Breaking Barriers is published by Teachers College Press and is due for release on June 25. Maplewood’s Words Bookstore will be hosting an online-only event with Kelley and co-author Litow on Tuesday, June 29. Please visit wordsbookstore.com to purchase the book and/or register for the June 29 event.


Malia Rulon Herman is an education writer based in Maplewood. She believes in the need for schools like P-TECH and would be thrilled if one opened here in time for her elementary-age children to enter the lottery to attend.