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What’s behind the P-TECH hype? We answer as Obama stops by

In a system with more than 1,800 schools, one is getting an extra-large dose of attention today. President Barack Obama is visiting P-TECH, or Pathways in Technology Early College High School (and partially shutting down Prospect Park in the process). The small school in Crown Heights, which opened in 2011 in the building being vacated by Paul Robeson High School, doesn’t even have a graduating class to boast about. But it’s been getting high praise from high places since even before it opened because of its approach to preparing students for a 21st-century job market.

P-Tech is new and still relatively untested — it’s only a few months into its third year — but there are some early signs of success under its dynamic principal, Rashid Davis. Still, whether it will live up to its lofty promises remains to be seen. Here’s our breakdown of what’s been happening in the Crown Heights school and why it’s received so much buzz.

How much buzz has there been?

The hype has come early and often.

P-TECH was barely open a month back in 2011 when policy makers had already taken an interest and replicating it around the country. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel struck a deal to open up to five schools like it; in New York, Mayor Bloomberg laid out plans to replicate it twice in his 2012 State of the City speech; three more schools could open next year. Last year, a foundation solicited bids for P-TECH duplicates in Idaho.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who will join Obama for the visit today, has jumped on the bandwagon, too. In August, he announced 16 winners to split up $4 million to start their own P-TECH versions around the state.

In between, P-TECH received visits from a host of high-profile leaders in education, including one day last year when Chancellor Dennis Walcott, State Education Commissioner John King and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan all stopped by. A couple of months later, Obama name-dropped the school in his 2013 State of the Union speech. Obama said it was a new way for American schools to prepare students for life beyond high school. Partnerships with higher education and high-tech industries, he said in his 2013 State of the Union speech, would be key to bridging that gap in the future.

“At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn,” Obama said, “a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.”

Obama returns today, where he’ll be joined by Bloomberg, Cuomo, Walcott, Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio, as well as union leaders Michael Mulgrew and Randi Weingarten.

What’s so special about the P-TECH model?

The P-TECH model capitalizes on a number of of-the-moment concepts: college and career readiness, public-private partnerships, career and technical education, and an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

P-TECH is just one of hundreds of high school programs in the country where student take college-level courses that culminates in an associate’s degree at no cost. There are more than a dozen alone in New York City. The school is also one of dozens of career and technical education schools in the city, including several that have opened in the last few years to prepare students for booming industries.

What makes P-TECH different is that it has strong partnerships with both a higher education institution — students take courses through CityTech in downtown Brooklyn — but also with an industry leader that’s invested in helping students excel professionally. In the case of P-Tech, the company is IBM. The technology corporation’s foundation, headed by a former New York City deputy chancellor, Stan Litow, contributed $500,000 to support the school and has recruited IBM employees to mentor students and give them preference for entry-level jobs once they graduate.

Plus, unlike most early college students where students to earn associate’s degrees in four years, P-TECH plans to enroll students for up to six years. Some students might earn enough college credits to get the associate’s degree in four years, but others will be able to stay on at no cost. The goal is to ensure that all students enroll in college, a step that often gets permanently disrupted by the gap after high school graduation.

Like all of the schools in CUNY’s Early College Initiative, P-Tech is partnered with a public city university. Professors from CityTech in downtown Brooklyn come to Crown Heights to teach a variety of courses that range from required first-year subjects, such as public speaking and a class called “Black Theater,” to courses that are more in line with the program’s two majors, computer information systems and electromechanical engineering technology.

Most students at the school have yet to begin college course work related to those majors. P-TECH is still in its first years of operation, meaning that the school’s reputation has stemmed more from very high expectations than from any track record of success.

How is P-TECH doing so far?

It’s too early to know how many of its students will make it through the six-year program. But two years in, data collected by Principal Rashid Davis shows that students are progressing toward the college track at different paces.

The school year begins in July with a six-week summer course to prepare for the August Regents exams in math and English. Those who score higher than 75 on English and 80 on math can start taking college courses as soon as the fall semester starts, even as ninth-graders.

Through the school’s first four semesters, ending last June, about one third of 227 students had earned college credits, including 32 students who had at least 11 college credits. A smaller group of 15 students who call themselves the “the first 15” had earned 17 college credits through their first two years at P-Tech.

But getting P-TECH’s students ready to take those courses is no easy task. The average proficiency rate on eighth-grade English tests for the 102 students who entered the school in its inaugural year was a 2.80, below the level 3 that labels students as “proficient.” And the state has now said those proficiency rates were inflated.

Some schools with students who are not performing at grade level choose to double down on the basics, focusing intensively on raising students’ proficiency in math and reading. P-TECH’s approach is to push students through the basic work as quickly as possible, under the theory that high expectations will lead to stronger academic performance. Research about whether fast-tracking low-performing students into college classes is mixed, but P-TECH teachers say they see benefits.

“Even the students who aren’t the highest-performing students, I feel like they’re getting more out of it,” Dan Beckley, a physics teacher, said last spring. “It’s like bringing the floor up.”

Most students haven’t scored high enough on the Regents exams to enroll in the college courses, and in interviews last spring, students from the “first 15” said their college grades were good, but the classes were challenging. Not every student makes it — the group used to be called the “first 16.”

“It didn’t feel like we were being babied,” said Sierra Copeland, a sophomore at the time. “We had to grow up a lot.”

What type of student goes to P-TECH?

P-TECH is unscreened, and so looks only for a Brooklyn address and mandatory attendance at an information session for admissions preferences. Davis said that 85 percent of the students are from central Brooklyn neighborhoods and one in three live in nearby neighborhoods that make up the local community school district.

Like most schools that offer career and technical education certification, students are predominantly male. Ninety-five percent are black or Hispanic and 16 percent of the first-year cohort were students with disabilities.

P-TECH’s popularity with parents and students has grown significantly with all of its early attention. Davis said that a little over 200 eighth-graders applied for 108 seats in its opening year. This year, Davis received over 600 applications — enough to fill the class with students who ranked the school, but just barely, under the city’s complex matching algorithm for the high school admissions process.

What does the future hold for P-TECH?

It’s a good sign for a school when the president of the United States spends his Friday afternoon there. And P-TECH’s high expectations for its students are likely to propel some to heights they might not otherwise might not reach.

But in New York City, buzz and ambitions are hardly an assurance of long-term success. Schools here rise and fall with shifts in student interest, city priorities, and school leadership. Robeson, the school that P-TECH is replacing, opened in the 1980s with many of the same characteristics, including a business partnership and a focus on careers, according to the Huffington Post. Now Robeson is closing, shuttered by the Bloomberg administration because of poor performance.

Davis should know about how quickly a school’s fate can change. He started his career at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, which has now been closed and replaced by small high schools. Davis founded one of them, Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy. The year after he left to open P-TECH, the school plummeted in the city’s ratings and is struggling to make up the lost ground.

P-TECH’s challenges are steep. Unlike some other schools that have attracted fierce attention, the school has not emphasized teaching quality in its case for why it’s making a difference for its students, putting it at odds with a growing movement toward teaching and learning as a driver of student success. It has yet to fulfill any of its lofty promises about student achievement. If its college partnership or relationship with IBM changes, as could easily happen in the future, its unique model could be disrupted. And meanwhile, interested observers from across the country will be scrutinizing its progress.