Few public high schools in the country have attracted as much shine as Pathways in Technology Early College High School — P-TECH — in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
A large classroom at the school is hung with blown-up color posters of President Obama, smiling with students on a visit to the school in 2013. That year, just two years after its founding, Obama mentioned the school by name in his State of the Union Address:
"Now at schools like P-TECH in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, 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."
P-TECH completely overhauled the school-to-career pipeline, creating a six-year program that blended the traditional four years of high school with two free years of community college, plus IBM internships and mentorships. And it offered all this to some of the students most underserved by the current system: Most are from low-income families, African-American or Hispanic, and a majority are boys.
The school accepts students by lottery, not entrance exam. That means, unlike other early college programs, there are no academic requirements to get in. The high school's website states boldly: "With a unique 9-14 model, the goal for our diverse, unscreened student population is 100% completion of an associate degree within six years."
Riding the waves of good press, P-TECH was quickly replicated all over the country.
But five years in, a year before the first full graduating class of the original school is expected, the model is showing signs of growing pains. Many of its students failed college courses early on, and internal emails obtained by NPR reveal disagreements across the many parties to this partnership over how best to serve those students.
In one email, P-TECH's principal, Rashid Davis, called the City University of New York's academic policies "elitist."
The P-TECH Promise
P-TECH was designed to address a set of familiar problems: Fewer than 30 percent of students who begin community college in the U.S. finish their two-year degrees in three years. Those who don't are largely relegated to entry-level jobs in the low-wage service sector, while the nation faces a shortage of people qualified for well-paying technical jobs.
From the moment students first entered as ninth-graders, P-TECH made two promises, says Stanley Litow, an IBM vice president and an architect of the program. First, they were guaranteed a place in college. And second: "If you complete, you'll be first in line [for a job] at IBM."
Students begin taking college courses from CUNY's New York City College of Technology, known as City Tech, as early as the ninth grade. P-TECH's rigorous and intensive six years are designed to result in an associate degree in either computer systems technology or electromechanical engineering technology.
And before P-TECH had a chance to graduate even one student, new P-TECHs were being announced: in upstate New York, in Chicago, in Colorado.
Scaling up quickly was IBM's plan from the beginning, says Litow. "There are lots of successful schools. Why don't they go to scale? Because barriers to replication have not been addressed in the design."
By this coming fall, there will be 60 P-TECH schools in six states, with 200 different industry partners, offering a range of technical degrees in areas like advanced manufacturing and health information technology.
And that's why the dispute raised in these emails has national implications beyond just the one high school in Brooklyn.
Bending The Rules
The debate, according to the emails and interviews with several of the people involved, was over an attempt by P-TECH and IBM to bend the university's rules for students with low grades.
In fall 2014, P-TECH told NPR, 21 percent of grades earned by its students in college courses were D's and F's.
For teenagers taking college courses, this might not be too shocking. But the whole point of P-TECH is that students are supposed to be set up for success and supported at every step. They are not supposed to be put in college classes until they're ready, as determined by New York's state exams, the ACT or CUNY's placement tests.
D's and F's are a problem for several reasons. CUNY requires a 2.0 or C average across college courses for students to remain in good academic standing to be eligible for Pell Grants and to transfer to four-year programs. Within a technical major, students must earn at least a C in every course. Retaking courses to improve the grade, meanwhile, can cause students to fall behind P-TECH's brisk six-year pace.
The disagreements aired in the emails center on these policies. IBM and P-TECH had been seeking exceptions from CUNY that would allow students to retake failed college courses without penalty. CUNY officials insisted that the same standards apply to all students.
Cass Conrad, who coordinates between CUNY and the city's various early college high school programs, reiterated the policies in writing in an email to the city's seven CUNY-affiliated early college high schools, including P-TECH, in December.
Rashid Davis, the principal of P-TECH, fired back in a reply-all:
Unfortunately it looks as if there was no feedback included from the first 9-14 [meeting about early college high schools]. We should learn from experience how disadvantaged populations are negatively impacted from elitist policies and practices.
I am deeply disappointed and look forward to the conversation."
Brian Donnelly, deputy director of early college high school programs at CUNY, replied: "Provosts and deans as well as CUNY Central staff have provided guidelines that reflect sensible policies that protect students' academic careers, so your categorization of these policies as elitist is deeply disappointing."
Davis responded that it was too soon to hold his students to these standards: "We still have almost two years left before the maturation of our six years," he wrote. "We should work backwards after the first full maturation and have the policies emerge from the work. To implement policies before the full maturation hampers the innovation."
Reminding everyone that his students aren't screened for academic ability, he added: "I have to protect the most vulnerable students from policies that might do them more harm than good."
Asked for comment about the emails and the debate surrounding them, Donnelly and Conrad referred NPR to CUNY. Michael Arena, a spokesman for CUNY, told NPR: "The excerpted quotes referenced were part of a natural and healthy discussion among academic administrators at the University and P-TECH who were sharing views on the application of standards as this high school continues to grow and thrive."
Rashid Davis answered questions about P-TECH in general. But in response to specific questions about the emails, he provided a written statement via an IBM spokeswoman: "While the words I chose in a confidential email may have been misconstrued, the fact is I care deeply about my students' success and will continue to be their advocate."
A Student's Story
One of those students is Jeremy Hernandez, a neatly dressed, charismatic 17-year-old from Rosedale, Queens.
He says he's always been technically minded. At his middle school he belonged to the "mouse brigade," fixing the school's computers. At his IBM internship last summer, Hernandez designed and built a heat sensor that tracks the temperature in a room by measuring photons.
Back in 2011, when he won the lottery to attend P-TECH as a freshman, he tested into college-level algebra. And yet, despite his interest and his scores, Hernandez says, "I wasn't a math person."
He failed his first college math course, taken on P-TECH's campus with instructors from City Tech, in the spring of that ninth-grade year.
"The professors were much more strict," he says. "You had to adapt to them. I was struggling."
But Jeremy buckled down and got extra support, and is now back on track to graduate with an associate degree in electromechanical engineering technology in June 2017.
Nationwide, algebra is the single course most likely to prevent community college students from earning a degree. Bonne August, provost of City Tech, points out that 70 percent of her associate degree students come in taking remedial, or high school level, math.
But the demands placed on her students who come from P-TECH are much greater. Instead of college students taking high school math, it's high school students taking college math.
"It's a reach," says August. One that requires relentless focus, tutoring sessions after school and on Saturdays, summer sessions and study groups.
August says that the 2.0 GPA rule is intended to maintain academic rigor, and to help students keep their options open.
"If a P-TECH student doesn't complete the college degree in six years, or decides they are no longer interested in these majors, they can finish their degrees [elsewhere]," she explains. "But they won't be eligible for Pell Grants if they're below a 2.0. They can get in academic difficulty the same as any other student."
"We do students no favors if we create an environment that isn't what students think it is, which is college expectations," says Nancy Zimpher, the chancellor of the State University of New York system, speaking in favor of these policies. "We can't compromise on the quality."
SUNY is part of the broader P-TECH partnership that is expanding early college high schools across New York state.
There's no question that P-TECH is offering an opportunity that Hernandez and many other students might not otherwise have had. The several students I spoke with described friendly, supportive competition among themselves, teachers who care about them, IBM mentors who are often hands-on, and a principal who stops them in the hallway, greets them by name, and quotes them the grade on their last test.
The many parties to the P-TECH partnership seem to be doing a lot right. The debate right now seems to hinge on whether it's enough. Is the structure of the program realistic for most? What will happen to the students who fall behind?
To be sure, the partners aren't deaf to these concerns.
"In the earlier years, probably more were failing because they weren't doing the work and taking it seriously," says August, the provost at City Tech. She says based on these early experiences, City Tech has implemented early-warning systems. "The students are really kept informed of how they're doing, because we don't want them to get lost. The idea is not to push people to the brink and it's sink or swim."
Now, says August, struggling students meet at midterm with a liaison from the high school, the instructor and their parents to figure out a strategy: "Is more work needed? Is this hopeless? If so, can we withdraw [taking a W instead of a low grade] and have them try again? If it's not hopeless, can we make a plan and maybe have them drop one course so they can focus harder on others?"
ShuDon Brown, a 16-year-old student from Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, recalls having this meeting during her first college course. "They kind of told the entire class, and they said, 'You can come to me after class and I'll give you a one-on-one chat,' " she says. "It was the hardest at the time, but it's that experience that helped me avoid even harder times."
She said she learned to "speak my mind," and raise her hand when she had a question. Brown is on track for an early graduation with her associate degree in June, four years after starting at P-TECH. Watching her succeed in college, her mom was inspired to go back to school herself for her master's.
The percentage of D's and F's earned by P-TECH students in college courses has dropped, from the 21 percent reported in fall 2014 to 14 percent in fall 2015. "I live and breathe and eat these numbers," Davis tells NPR Ed. "We're showing signs of early success, and I'm hopeful that we can continue to move forward."
Getting To 100
Those who've done it say successful early college programs are fiendishly difficult to pull off. While at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Tom Vander Ark led a $100 million initiative in the early 2000s that launched over 200 early college high schools.
The data show that these schools graduate students at higher rates, and most graduates also earn some college credits. But the model didn't spread far.
"This falls into my most-successful, least-adopted innovation of anything I've been involved in for 20 years," Vander Ark says.
Early college high schools, he adds, "have not been successful as a growth strategy because they're so darned hard to create. They're this hybrid institution that spans secondary and tertiary education, and that tends to be a complex thing to do well."
Clashes between colleges and high schools on academic policies, like the dispute at P-TECH, are the norm, says Vander Ark.
Of the original 97 students who started at P-TECH in Brooklyn in the fall of 2011, 11 have already earned associate degrees. At least four took jobs at IBM; the other seven are continuing at four-year colleges.
By June 2016, IBM says, about 1 in 4 of the original P-TECH students should have an associate degree. That, after five years, already beats the national graduation rates for poor community college students of color.
But the goal, on P-TECH's own website, isn't 25 percent. It's 100 percent in six years.
And the school is being replicated quickly, in the bright glare of publicity, before the kinks have been worked out and the model has been proven sustainable.
"Your school started off as nothing, and now you're meeting the president," muses ShuDon Brown. "Cameras are everywhere. It was shocking at first."