From High School Calculus Straight To A Job At IBM: Meet The First Graduates Of P-TECH

School leaders and industry partners are reinventing vocational education for low-income students. Can the new model work?

The teacher stands at the chalkboard in a black button-down with a burgundy tie, calculus equations scrawled across the wall.


“Once we get y = 3/4, we can easily substitute back in.”

A dozen students, all African American, glance down at their worksheets. There’s a murmur as pairs confer, leaning over their graphing calculators and milk cartons, and then the light scratch of pencil on paper.

“Raise your hand if you got this same equation.”


To the right, a ribbon of light streams in from a wall of windows, their blinds nearly drawn. Outside: the distant rumble of traffic on Atlantic Avenue, the springtime chatter of birds, the sun-baked Crown Heights rooftops.

“Does it factor?” Heads shake no. “So what can we try?”

At first glance, the back and forth in this high school calculus class is familiar. But in the last row, where Radcliffe Saddler, 18, sits in quiet concentration, there’s a ripple of something new. Next week, Saddler and five of his fellow seniors will don commencement robes and receive associate’s degree diplomas from the New York City College of Technology–before receiving their high school diplomas and before attending senior prom.


“It’s all about motivation, where you want to see yourself,” Saddler says. Four years ago, he enrolled somewhat reluctantly in P-TECH, a new Brooklyn high school designed to bridge students into technology careers, after failing to match at his first-choice school (New York City high school admissions is based on a matching system similar to that of medical school). Now, thanks to P-TECH’s accelerated course sequence, he is preparing to start his career as a market research associate analyst at IBM, the school’s industry partner.

Four of P-TECH’s first graduates pose for their proud parents.

That unusual outcome is the result of an innovative model catching on across the country. This past school year, there were 27 P-TECH-style high schools operating in New York, Illinois, and Connecticut; by this fall, there will be 40. Saddler is one of the first students to graduate from the original P-TECH, or Pathways in Technology Early College High School, led by founding principal Rashid Davis, a 15-year veteran of New York City public schools.

“We’re talking about giving students who are not academically screened a different trajectory,” Davis says. “We know that a high school diploma is no longer enough, and we need to make sure we’re getting students skills and a degree that will get them into the middle class.”


The challenge, he says, is “to get the adults to understand what students are capable of, students who don’t have certain labels.”

Labels are something P-TECH’s students must contend with every day. The student body is 85% black and 11% Hispanic, with two-thirds of students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, based on their household income. For students who share that profile, the statistics are grim: Only 9% of students from the lowest income quartile complete a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2015 report issued by the University of Pennsylvania and the Pell Institute, versus 77% of students from the highest. That credential, as President Obama likes to say, is a “ticket to the middle class,” with research showing that a bachelor’s degree translates into $1 million in additional earnings over the course of a lifetime.

Enter P-TECH, a model that merges high school and college with the goal of graduating students in six years or less with a high school diploma, an associate’s degree in computer systems or electromechanical engineering, and a job offer. Students earn the associate’s degree for free, thanks to a community college partnership, sparing them from the need to take on loans in order to secure a post-secondary credential. Saddler and five other students have managed to complete their credits in just four years; the rest of their cohort is on track to graduate in either 2016 or 2017.


Increasing diversity has become a priority for many technology companies, but that is not P-TECH’s primary aim. Instead, the model’s advocates often point to statistics like the growing number of “middle skills” jobs–by 2018, there will be 14 million new jobs that fit that description and require an associate’s degree. If preparing low-income and minority students to fill those jobs ultimately increases diversity at companies like IBM, that impact would be a welcome side effect.

Saddler and classmate Kiambu Gall, 17, have accepted IBM job offers, secured based on their performance during summer internships. Both say they intend to continue their educations, part-time, at some point in the near future. With graduation and prom looming large, we sit down to talk towards the end of the school day in an unused P-TECH classroom, next to the principal’s office. Above our heads, a larger-than-life photograph of Saddler shoulder-to-shoulder with Obama, who visited the school in 2013, covers an entire wall.

“My whole life, my family told me that I had to go to college. I thought that with track, I was going to get a scholarship, go to college, and get a job,” says Gall, a competitive sprinter. “When the [IBM] job came, it just changed everything, it changed my whole flow. I came to the realization that I don’t have to go to college right away. I’m going to go, but this job is a great opportunity for me to start a new life after high school.” He pauses. “I’m still trying to let my family realize that.”


“You take Mom out to dinner with your first paycheck, and then she’ll come around,” says Will Ehrenfeld, IBM’s P-TECH program manager.

Gall smiles, hesitant. “Yeah. But as of now, I’m not sure.”

The following week I meet Gall’s mother, Kerschelle, at an afternoon reception hosted by IBM. It’s the day of the students’ City Tech graduation ceremony at the Barclays Center, and families have turned out for the cameras (their own, and the media’s) in sharp suits and bright summer dresses. “I want him to continue college, because I don’t have a degree. I didn’t want him to just get an associate’s,” she says. “But at the end of the day, you have to trust in how you raised your children, and that the decisions he makes going forward–he’s made great decisions so far.”


She isn’t quite ready, however, to think of her son as an adult. “I don’t want him to think he’s quote-unquote grown,” she says. “He can stay home as long as he needs, while he’s working. He’s still 17, he’s a baby.”

Yet in the eyes of IBM, Gall will be a full-time employee. And he’ll be eligible for the same opportunities and benefits as any other new hire, the company says, whether or not he successfully adds another degree to his résumé.

Stanley Litow, previously deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education, manages IBM’s commitment to the model as president of the IBM International Foundation. He is adamant that having an associate’s degree, versus a bachelor’s or master’s, will not limit P-TECH students’ future prospects. “It’s not your grandmother’s vocational program, which put kids into low-wage jobs that didn’t have a future,” he says. “And it’s not just IBM–nobody is looking at it that way. They’re looking at it as a solution to the skills crisis. The degree that they’re getting is one that’s significantly valued in the private sector. The sky’s the limit.”


If IBM does eventually promote students like Gall to salaried positions on par with those of employees with bachelor’s degrees, the company would be closing the earnings gap that has long separated employees with two-year degrees from employees with four-year degrees. “Over the past four decades, those with a bachelor’s degree have tended to earn 56% more than high school graduates, while those with an associate’s degree have tended to earn 21% more than high school graduates,” according to a report issued in 2014 by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

And therein lies the core question facing models like P-TECH, which put a modern, often technology-focused spin on “voc ed,” or career and technical education (CTE). Students enrolled in the new programs often do better than they would have at a traditional, general-interest school–but by bypassing four-year college and instead going straight to work, are they ultimately stuck in second-tier career tracks?

It’s too soon to know either way, though the data on programs that P-TECH has borrowed from are promising. In 2002, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation seeded the launch of 10 “early-college” programs, designed to incorporate college courses into the high school experience of low-income and minority students. Students enrolled in the schools “were more likely than comparison students to enroll in two-year colleges and were as likely to enroll in four-year colleges,” according to the American Institutes for Research. And CTE programs, despite their stigma, are often a good choice for students who aren’t on an honors track.


“Some of the really good research on CTE programs indicates that there have been some remarkable effects on students’ labor-market participation,” says James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools. His past research on the long-term impacts of career academies suggests that CTE students “tend to get jobs, keep jobs, and earn more money than their peers,” even after controlling for predictors.

When school feels relevant to the real world, he says, it can “connect kids to the labor market and get them more motivated.”

Davis, P-TECH’s principal, is unapologetic about the model’s de-emphasis of four-year college. “The most pushback that we do get is from the education people who are clueless about the reality, because they haven’t gone beyond their own social circle,” he says. He is more sympathetic to pushback from parents. “The narrative that they have been told is, you’re going to leave high school and you’re going to go to college, you’re going to use extracurriculars to earn scholarships. The pushback comes from fear–the fear of not knowing how to get there, the fear of wanting their children to have better lives, that tension that comes from, wow, we’ve signed up for something new, and we didn’t know what we were getting into. We deal with all sorts of tensions between dreams, expectations, and then the outcomes, the reality.”


There has been no formal research so far on P-TECH specifically, insofar as it combines early college and CTE–but that hasn’t stopped policymakers from embracing the model. Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged $3 million in new funds to further expand P-TECH; recently, state leaders in Colorado and Rhode Island also signed on.

Kevin Rothman, principal of Excelsior Academy in Newburgh, New York, is one of the first school leaders to attempt to replicate the P-TECH approach. “The current model of education is not serving every student well,” says Rothman, who taught math for 10 years before becoming an administrator. “This was an opportunity to individualize paths, but then also have that direct focus on college and career.” His experience so far echoes Kemple’s research: “You can see with the students that having that direct connection–it’s tangible, we go to the college, we go to the workplace–is really motivating.”

A lot of Excelsior students, he says, aspire to ultimately complete a bachelor’s degree. “I would hope that most continue their education. The point would be that we’re instilling a love of learning in them.” But he’s cognizant of the odds, and of the importance of getting students at least one step higher on the career ladder. “I don’t want to say a sure thing, but if they work hard, they will get this two-year degree. The statistics outside of the program are stacked against these students. Statistically, a handful of them would complete a college degree if not for this program. We’re talking about all 50 of them getting there.”


Arriving at that outcome requires deft choreography: engaged parents, dedicated teachers, an extended school year, an extended school day, industry partners, community college partners, internship opportunities–it’s a daunting list of variables for any school to manage.

Whether P-TECH will be able to scale, Kemple says, remains uncertain. “That’s the toughest question that the field has to confront: The critical ingredients of this thing are not likely to be adapted with a high level of fidelity,” he says. “You have to make sure there’s careful attention to project-based learning–that requires the right set of teachers in the building, the right attitude among your colleagues. Then the industry partners–you have to make sure there’s the right commitment towards kids on the job. Even getting kids to and from jobs becomes a challenge when you don’t have the transportation system that New York City has. I think P-TECH has be careful about its brand.”

For now, just six students, including Saddler and Gall, embody that brand. As they surely heard at their first of two June graduation ceremonies, their future, and that of P-TECH, is now in their hands.


About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.