9:36 am Feb. 18, 2011
IBM’s plans to open a high school for 100 aspiring information-technologists in Crown Heights, Brooklyn can seem innovative or desperate, depending on how you look at it. It might be both.
The Fortune 50 company announced its plans last week shortly after the alarming release of a report from researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education noting that American educators are doing a dismal job of producing mid-skill workers to fill the kind of slots IBM has in abundance. In other words, no one is training future IBM employees. The Harvard report describes an economic future in which countless tech, accounting and pharmaceutical leaders struggle to recruit from a diminishing pool of qualified applicants, while a million high school students drop out every year and are left to scramble for $7.25 an hour jobs.
The private sector has taken modest steps to come up with their own work-arounds. Companies like Citicorp, Deloitte & Touche, Apple and IBM sponsor internship programs and business fairs, and have placed employees in public schools as volunteers so they can identify future hires for tech and engineering jobs that require some training.
IBM is now taking what may be considered the next logical step by creating its own IT school in collaboration with the city department of education and the City University of New York, amid a larger movement by the Bloomberg administration to close poor-performing public schools and replace them with new, smaller charter or vocational schools.
The IBM school—to be known as "P-Tech," for Pathways in Technology Early College High School—is the first of its kind. Toyota has a strong apprenticeship program where it closely tracks potential hires and offers them generous scholarships. And individual foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have funded individual schools whose philosophies it admires. But this is the first time a multi-national corporation has opened an entire school here in the service of cultivating a pool of potential future employees.
IBM and the city have already expressed an interest in rolling out other, similar institutions. For IBM, that would mean replicating P-Tech in other big cities around the country. For New York, that may mean a collaborative effort in 2012 with a pharmaceutical or health care company, according to a department of education spokesperson.
P-Tech is expected to open its doors in the fall inside the building that now houses the Paul Robeson High School, which is currently slated, controversially, to be phased out.
Students will be able to attend P-Tech for four to six years and graduate with a high school degree or an associates degree and, maybe, an entry-level job at IBM. The computer behemoth has said that it will design the curriculum for the school and provide much of the infrastructure. To run the school, IBM has chosen Rashid F. Davis, who was hired away from the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, another technology-centered public school partially funded by The Gates Foundation. (Under Davis' leadership, the Bronx Academy became something of an international showpiece for the city, which gave the school an "A," based on a set of schools-rating criteria heavily weighted to reward year-to-year progress rather than overall grades.)
P-Tech, like the Bronx Academy, will not screen applicants, but will give preference to prospective students who attend an information session. In other words, the school is screening prospective students for level of motivation. Like many of the city’s charter schools, P-Tech makes clear in its information material that the school requires long-days and attendance during summer school, which will effectively provide a further level of screening.
Aside from providing the general New York State required curriculum, the school will offer internships, in-house mentoring programs with business leaders, practical job training, and what corporations refer to as “soft skills.”
Those are the interpersonal skills job applicants seem sorely lacking in, according to James Stone, director of the federally funded National Research Center for Career and Technical Education.
“Everyone wants someone who can write memos with sentences that include verbs," he said. "But they also want people who can work in teams. Play-nice-in-the-sandbox skills.”
This past weekend, P-Tech’s burgeoning staff set up shop in the halls of Martin Luther High School in midtown Manhattan for the city’s New High Schools fair. Hundreds of prospective high school students milled around, a few dressed in pressed suits and shiny wing-tips, most looking like they’d been dragged out of bed by parents.
At makeshift stations covered with posters, laptops, pamphlets and penny candy, school representatives peddled their new schools, many of which are going into buildings of public high schools that are being phased out.
In attendance was a Bronx health care high school that hopes to churn out future x-ray technicians and EMTs, a Brooklyn school with a maritime theme that has a partnership with the New York Seaport, and a new art-centric institution that promises to create an in-house art-gallery, totally run by students, along with a promise that "the learning process … will mirror the artistic process.”
At a table set up by the Bronx Construction Academy, one of the school’s sponsors, a licensed plumber and construction-company owner named Jeffrey Smalls, who has contracts with the New Jersey Port Authority and the Empire State Building, told prospects that they would have the opportunity to help build a house from scratch inside the school building. The color brochure Smalls handed out included a city-issued wage report that noted a city electrical worker could earn $90 an hour.
The most popular school display, by far, marketed Automative High School, which boasts an in-house body shop, a football team and a spring musical that often packs the house. Last year, the school, whose halls are filled with engines, produced Guys & Dolls.
At the IBM table, P-Tech’s new principal, who sports dreadlocks, and a team of young recruiters in P-Tech t-shirts handed out pamphlets and fielded questions. On the table sat a laptop with a running ad that read: "Do You know Science, Technology and Math Are Making Our World Better?"
One mother wanted to know whether the school “offered extra support for a student who needs help.” Others wanted to know where the school was located and what subway it was near.
“I’m so interested,” said Martha Hernandez, who hurried over in a bright red coat with her son Brian, an eighth grader. “I like that they give college credit for free.”
At the end of the fair, P-Tech representatives shuffled out with their cardboard boxes and gear. When a student, showing up too late for the fair, approached them in front of the school, one of the school representatives shouted to his colleagues to wait. The crew stopped, put their boxes down and gave their spiel one last time, before finally heading home.