In May, a group of around 20 students will graduate from Fulton-Montgomery Community College. The following month they will graduate from high school.
“Our kids are going to graduate from college and get diplomas before they finish high school,” said Pat Michel, superintendent of the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES. “We had to do a lot of work with state ed, because that kind of blew their minds.”
The students, as many as two dozen of them, are part of what will be the first graduating class of the P-Tech program launched by the regional BOCES four years ago.
And the P-Tech students will be graduating at rates far higher than their home school districts and their community college classmates, according to projected graduation rates Michel presented during a state Board of Regents meeting earlier this month. They are expecting to graduate over 90 percent of their students, Michel said.
Confident in the success of a model that asks students to concentrate in a career pathway — information technology, advanced manufacturing, health sciences or business — and pursue an associate degree at the same time as a high school diploma, officials from districts across the BOCES’ three-county region are looking into ways to replicate the P-Tech model within their own high schools.
“A number of districts in the region are exploring the possibility of infusing into our local districts a P-Tech model,” Broadalbin-Perth Superintendent Steve Tomlinson said last week.
While Tomlinson and other administrators cautioned the plans are still in early stages, at least some districts are eyeing the start of next school year for rolling out small P-Techs within their schools. Those programs would start with freshmen and focus on a handful of pathways the districts felt were well-suited to the their schools and represented needs of local communities.
At Broadalbin-Perth, for example, pathways could include early childhood education and environmental science, a topic the school sees as a strength given its proximity to the Adirondacks, Tomlinson said.
In time, the schools would be able to form a network of career pathways that students could pick from, moving from a home district to a district with the ideal program.
Two weeks ago, Michel and P-Tech staff presented to the Regents and earned plaudits from the state education commissioner. The P-Tech was recently chosen as one of 25 innovative school models nationwide by the American Association of School Administrators.
Also in the past two weeks, BOCES staff members have started meeting with administrators and the boards of education in the 14 districts that make up the BOCES to discuss what would go into the expansion. District leaders like Tomlinson are also starting to discuss among themselves what types of programs their districts would be best able to host.
The P-Tech model is not meant for the most advanced students or for those most struggling but for the students in the middle, those at risk of being lost in the large crowds of students if they aren’t engaged with work they connect to. They are the students not well suited for the traditional school setting of lecture, notes, assignments.
“Frankly, there is a whole segment of kids in the region where the traditional system hasn’t worked — it hasn’t,” Michel said. “And we have to start to be honest with ourselves.”
A different kind of school
The P-Tech school is housed at the Jansen Avenue School in Johnstown. Starting in just one hall, it has grown over four years to populate all but a small handful of classrooms in the former elementary school. Adding a class of around 50 students as the original freshman class moved up each year, the school has around 200 students.
The core of what makes the school different is its use of project-based learning. Every unit of study revolves around a central project that asks students to solve a problem for a local business, create a prototype of something new, develop a proposal or countless other end products.
For example: Students are asked to design a new kind of military armor; the town of Caroga Lake engaged students to develop a plan for an abandoned amusement park; a local ice cream company needed help building a website and online marketing strategy; one unit has students solve a murder, matching blood types and determining blood-splatter patterns.
“Students are very social, they learn best socially, but they need skills to do that,” said Heather Buskirk, who helped develop the school model with principal Mike Dardaris and serves as the school’s instructional coach.
The classrooms are called innovation spaces and, instead of teachers having their own classroom, they all have desks in a central teachers’ room and slide in and out of different rooms as needed. The proximity of their primary desks is meant to foster collaboration and connections as they discuss ongoing or future projects. Projects will often include components from science, social studies and English classes.
The students start earning college credits as early as freshman year, taking entry-level classes at the P-Tech school with other P-Tech students. In their junior year, students start to take courses at the Fulton-Montgomery County Community college campus, where a P-Tech teacher sets up at a table and meets with students who are expected to check in.
“I want to take as many classes as I can, so I can get as many credits as possible,” said junior Madison Perez, who is studying business. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I still don’t. That’s why I chose something that can go into all fields.”
By senior year, students are rarely at the P-Tech school. They spend their days like any college student: balancing a class schedule with homework, group meetings and school activities.
Josh Licciardo, who plans earn both an associate degree and high school diploma in the spring, works as a tutor at the community college, helping students in business and accounting classes. He also represents the college’s tutor group in the student senate.
Working on his accounting degree, Josh’s schedule doesn’t look like your regular high school senior’s: managerial accounting, computerized accounting, business communication and business law.
“We take high school, we pack it into two years of a different learning format and then we take those other two years and you experience college to its full extent,” he said of the school. Licciardo plans on transferring to a four-year university next year and could potentially earn a bachelor’s degree before he is 20 years old.
Strong business ties
As school districts look to replicate the P-Tech model, they are trying to identify career pathways into fields with local employment opportunities. Tomlinson said they looked into what types of jobs in the region are short qualified workers.
Health studies, computer technology and the other pathways offered in the program are considered the kinds of fields in need of trained workers and that pay middle class wages.
The P-Tech school also works closely with the region’s chamber of commerce; the chamber helps line up mentors who pair up with classes on specific projects, connect businesses and interns, host mock interviews and more.
But the program’s structure also means students as early as ninth and 10th grade are making decisions about what college degrees and even what careers they wish to pursue as young adults. During their freshman year, they take a career explorations class that introduces students to the different pathways; in their second year, they have chosen a pathway and start specialized classes. Students can finish some of the pathways in four years, while others might take five or six years.
It’s too early to know what proportion of P-Tech students will enter the work force after finishing or what portion will go on to a four-year college. Administrators said they expected less than half to continue immediately with their bachelor’s degree.
Professional skills are emphasized throughout the program. As ninth-grader Jackson Haverly, trained as a student ambassador and tour guide, showed off the school, he explained how students are expected to dress up anytime they are slated for a class presentation. A community closet of dress clothes hangs in the teachers’ lounge if a student forgets their nice clothes or needs access to a jacket.
Those well-suited presentations start small with freshmen presenting to teachers and small classes before building to the schoolwide presentations they are expected to make as sophomores. By the time they are juniors, they might be making presentations in college classes.
“I’ve always wanted to get a head start on my future, and we thought this would be a great way to do it,” Haverly said.