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A principal explains how her school is building its P-TECH program even as it serves its first cohorts of students.

How to build a P-TECH Academy on the go

A principal explains how her school is building its program even as it serves its first cohorts of students

As the principal of a brand new “pathways in technology early college high school” (P-TECH), I’ve had to become comfortable with the idea of building a program even as students are enrolled in it. Fortunately, my leadership team and I understand what our school will look like when everything is in place.

We have a blueprint that we’re implementing one year at a time, so we don’t have to do everything at once. We also have a partner, the Ulster Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), that has successfully run a similar program for eight years providing guidance and support. Here’s how it’s working so far and why it’s so important to our students and our community.

Building the plane as we fly—with excellent mechanics aboard

I became principal in July 2022, after the first year of the Ellenville P-TECH Academy’s existence. One of the first things I did was to reach out to Ulster BOCES and the State University of New York (SUNY) Ulster. These are important partners for us. Ulster BOCES helped to write the grant that secured funding to launch our school and has served as a model for us. Our students, like theirs, will take classes at SUNY Ulster and some will even take classes at Ulster BOCES itself.

With the Hudson Valley Pathways Academy at Ulster BOCES serving as a model both in its own operation and in its relationship with SUNY Ulster, we were fortunate to not be starting from scratch, but working to adapt a successful model to meet our own community’s needs. It was important to me to understand what role those institutions play and what expectations they would have of me and my students.

At the same time, I started making contacts at the Council of Industry. As a P-TECH, we educate many students who will go on to fill jobs in local industries, so I wanted to connect with local leaders about what we could offer them and what they could offer our students. That was also an opportunity to begin working toward putting together an advisory council of local employers. Ellenville is quite secluded from the rest of our county, so advisors from within our community are particularly important because they understand the needs of our local industry.

While the pieces of our advisory council are still falling into place, our students are off and running. We are rolling the P-TECH program out to one grade each year, so we currently have first-year and second-year students, for a total of 38 scholars. Our first-year students take their first college course, which is through our network administration pathway. They also take US history, English, Spanish I, algebra, and environmental science. Our second-year students take English, Living Environment, geometry, global history, art, and music.

Second-year students also have some classes in blocks to prepare them to complete the five required New York State Regents Exams by the end of their second year. The goal is to free them up to focus on their pathways. Then, in their third year, they’ll be able to take the prerequisite classes for enrollment at either SUNY Ulster, for the network administration pathway, or Ulster BOCES for the manufacturing pathway.

Professional opportunities for disadvantaged students

Arranging the schedule the way we do gives students room to really drill down on their pathways, and allows them to be open for opportunities such as job shadowing or internships. Most of our students are disadvantaged in some way and face challenges other college-bound students don’t.

These students are eager to be a part of the P-TECH program. Our application process takes place in the spring, and we already have a waiting list. We held an open house and parents of 5th-graders were putting their children’s names on the list, even though we don’t accept students below 9th grade.

Our current students include a broad mix of students from a range of demographics. This year, we even had more girls than boys apply to join the program, which is great, considering that network administration and manufacturing are fields traditionally dominated by men.

Even if students don’t end up working in one of those fields, P-TECH offers them an opportunity to reconnect to school, discover their own passions, and build a foundation for postsecondary success. At 14-18 years old, coming to a firm answer about that might be a little tough, but they have the opportunity to earn a college degree if they complete the program. Maybe a student in our manufacturing pathway will decide that they don’t want to work in manufacturing, but the associate degree they leave the program with is a great stepping stone to further education in, for example, engineering.

Our students really seem to appreciate the opportunities they’re receiving here. Recently, some of them took part in a workplace challenge at Viking Packaging, a local business that makes boxes for other companies. Students were tasked with designing a package for a specific customer and purpose. A 14-year-old student told me about how getting everything in under deadline was stressful, but that she felt good about the overall project and the experience it provided. She had to work with other students to decide who was going to be the project manager, who was going to design the product, how they were going to figure out the cost, and then to present their product to professionals who do that same work every day. They knocked it out of the park, and seeing professionals who are actually interested in their ideas is powerfully motivating for students who may not have realized how much impact they can have on the world around them.

Our students aren’t in mainstream classrooms, but we are in a wing of the junior high school. The Ellenville P-TECH program is a school within a school, allowing students many of the same experiences of traditional high schools such as chatting in the hallway or spending time together at lunch while also creating a distinct community with unique opportunities.

We think it’s important that students understand their options as much as possible before committing one way or the other. In the future, we plan to visit classrooms to tell younger students about our program and perhaps even to allow prospective students to shadow current scholars so they can get a feel for what it’s really like.

Connecting with the community

We just hired our workplace learning teacher in anticipation of our oldest students being ready to take on some of those different opportunities in the 2023-2024 school year. She was the English teacher for our program, and she has a plethora of contacts with industry leaders and employers in the area. We’re looking forward to seeing how her contacts inform our program in terms of local industry’s needs, and feel she will help provide our students the best opportunities to learn about different workplaces through job shadowing and internships.

Next year we are also looking forward to sending our first class of third-year students to Ulster BOCES, where they’ll be able to take computer aided drawing (CAD) classes, among other opportunities. As we’ve been learning what local industries need, CAD has come up again and again as a marketable skill. At Ulster BOCES they’ll also be able to take welding, which is a skill a local window company looks for in employees. They don’t make standard windows, but create huge walls of windows for penthouses and expensive homes or to overlook the scenery in ski resorts.

A core value of P-TECH is working with students and families to ensure they are prepared to navigate internships, applying for college, or beginning a career. It’s also a real benefit for local companies who want skilled employees eager to make a home in their community. We may have just started, but we’re already making a difference in these students’ lives, and I can’t wait to see our program grow as our partnerships with Ulster BOCES and SUNY Ulster swing into gear next year.

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