Science Education

First six students graduate from IBM's P-TECH school, will pursue STEM

Cletus Andoh

Cletus Andoh  (IBM)

When Cletus Andoh, 17, graduates from the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn, New York, on June 2, he will have earned not just a high school diploma but also an associate degree. Even more impressively, Andoh – who will be the first person in his immediate family to graduate from college — accomplished what would typically be six years of schooling in only four years. During the typical time it takes for the average student to complete high school, Andoh graduated from college with honors, been accepted to – and will attend in the fall – Syracuse University, and completed an internship with IBM Research.  

As soon as Andoh and five of his classmates received their diplomas, they marked the first results of a national model spearheaded by tech giant IBM to help engage more young people from under-served areas in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“It’s (P-TECH) very different from other normal high schools,” Cletus told FoxNews.com. “I started my first college course at the end of my freshman year. The way the program flows — it’s just very different. The school just wants to give kids this great opportunity. To give them this opportunity and see what they can do with it. To capitalize on it.”

The school, which is based in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, is the flagship of the larger STEM Pathways to College and Careers program, which aims to address the lack of diversity in STEM careers. The school, a collaboration between the New York City Department of Education, The City University of New York (CUNY), the New York City College of Technology, and IBM, goes from grades nine through 14, gives students a two-year associate degree on top of the standard high school diploma.

Now that students from its first class are graduating, IBM sees P-TECH as the gold standard for the program that is quickly expanding nationally and internationally.

“I think this (graduation) shows that the program is realizing its promise,” Stanley Litow, IBM’s vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and the president of IBM’s Foundation, told FoxNews.com.  “When we go back to where we began, the idea was that there was very little connection between education and employment. We needed to address that.”

For Litow, the architect of the program, this was an opportunity for IBM to tackle head -on the dual, interlocked issues of education reform and the lack of diversity in STEM fields. It’s a subject that he has always been closely engaged with given that Litow is the former Deputy Chancellor of New York City Public Schools. He said schools like P-TECH are needed when one looks at the current state of United States public education. Whether it be the devaluation of the high school diploma in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, the de-emphasis on vocational secondary education, or the decimation of public schools nationwide due to budget cuts, he said it is crucial that students be given the skills and professional pathways necessary to succeed in STEM careers.

“There is this great need to look for a new model that deals with students who live in the largest problem areas, who go to the most disadvantaged schools – to bring this kind of opportunity to students of color, to change the education system that is being offered to them,” Litow said. “It is amazing news that, here we are now, with six students not only completing the program but completing the program two full years ahead of schedule. Three will be moving on to careers at IBM at a relatively high pay, and three have scholarships to four-year institutions.”

The success of students like Andoh in completing the rigorous course load while also gaining internship experience at IBM is the embodiment of the program, according to Litow — young people who are now able to competitively enter the professional world with tangible STEM-centric skills.

The program is now seeing a wide expansion to places such as Illinois, Connecticut, Colorado, and Rhode Island, and even as far as Australia.

For Rashid F. Davis, P-TECH’s founding principal, a great sense of pride comes from knowing that his school can be the something of a prototype for national, and international, education reform.

“I’m very, very proud,” Davis told FoxNews.com. “When we started out, people didn’t know if it would be a train wreck or not. But then, once people saw what we were achieving, they realized that P-TECH had relevance beyond central Brooklyn. Other people wanted to emulate us. It’s all about ‘how do you make sure our citizens, our students, our young people, are best prepared to have the opportunities to succeed?’”

The wheels for P-TECH, and the larger IBM program, were put in motion back in 2010, when then-New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joe Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg started to put an emphasis on city students having access to internship opportunities. Back then, IBM did not have an internship program open to high schoolers. Klein was friends with Samuel Palmisano, then-CEO of IBM, and the seeds were planted to engineer the “first IBM school” that would address the socioeconomic and cultural disparities evident in the STEM fields. Partnerships with CUNY and the New York City College of Technology were forged, and the seeds for P-TECH were planted — effectively bringing together individuals from business, government, education, and tech.

“The response to all of this has just been overwhelming. It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” Davis added.

The school attracted even more attention when President Barack Obama mentioned P-TECH in his 2013 State of the Union address.

“Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-TECh in Brooklyn … students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this,” Obama said.

Later that year, the President even visited the school.

The emphasis on giving low-income students opportunities like those at P-TECH are in part to topple particularly bleak statistics. In 1970, 6 percent of low-income students received a bachelor’s degree versus 44 percent of high-income students. Flash forward to 2013, and that number has barely budged with only 9 percent of low-income students earning a four-year degree versus 77 percent of those who are high-income, according to a 2015 report from the University of Pennsylvania and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Litow said he sees this IBM program coming of age at a “transformational time for education.”

“You see transformational activities in education that have taken place from time to time in the U.S. Like the end of the Second World War, for instance, they made high school mandatory, which opened up that option for a large number of students. It was transformative and led partially to America’s preeminence in the 20th century,” Litow said. “I think the story of these six kids graduating now brings it home. Overwhelmingly it’s the children of color, who come from low-income backgrounds who a lot of people are not betting on.”

“Cletus (Andoh) recently spoke with a few classmates to ninth graders at a new P-TECH school in Norwalk, Connecticut and you could tell just hearing from them had an enormous impact on those students,” he added.

For Andoh, the experience of attending P-TECH was full of surprises. He said that he never expected to complete his six years-worth of studies in four years, or step onto a college campus while still a freshman in high school.

“I took that first college class, went through it, and then went ‘wow, I passed a college class,’ ” Andoh said. “I thought ‘I can do this.’ It gave me a confidence boost.”

Where does Andoh see himself after finishing college?

“For now, I’m going to work on my bachelor’s degree and then I hope to work at IBM or another tech company,” he said. “I’ll see where life takes me. My goal would be to work for a tech company.”