St.Vrain Valley School District, with 284 students enrolled over the past five years and an additional 35 starting this fall, has the highest enrollment in Pathways in Technology Early College High School programs in Colorado.
The P-TECH program allows students to simultaneously earn a two-year postsecondary degree in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, field while gaining real-world workplace experiences through mentorships and internships and working toward their high school diplomas.
The nationwide program includes 161 high schools, 81 community colleges and 294 industry partners across the U.S. who provide students the opportunity to “develop skills and competencies that will translate directly to competitive careers,” according to the P-TECH website.
In 2019-2020, 652 students were enrolled in a P-TECH program across Colorado, 44% of which were first-generation college students, according to the Colorado Department of Education P-TECH fact sheet. Other P-TECH programs in the state include James Irwin Charter Schools in Colorado Springs, Northglenn High School in Adams 12 Five Star Schools District,
STEM School Highlands Ranch, Cañon City High School, and Central High School in Grand Junction, per the fact sheet.
There are three P-TECH programs in SVVSD: computer science at Skyline High School that launched in 2016, a biochemistry program at Frederick High School that started in 2019, and a cybersecurity program at Silver Creek High School that is set to begin next school year.
Students in high school begin taking college-level courses as freshmen and progress through the program until graduation, according to Brandon Shaffer, SVVSDs executive director of legal and governmental affairs, community outreach and P-TECH. The first four-year P-TECH graduates finished the Skyline program in 2020, he said.
“One hundred percent of our first cohort finished their high school graduation requirements in four years. Sixteen of those students, or 48%, finished the associate's degree in the same four-year time period. The remaining 17, or 52%, are still working toward finishing their associate's degree,” he said.
Students can complete the program in up to six years.
One of the key aspects of P-TECH programs is they provide real-world relevance for students by demonstrating how what they are doing in class applies to uses in the real world, according to Gregory Stephens, Skyline assistant principal and P-TECH administrator.
“The industry informs the community college skills the students need. (Industry) partners are looking at the sequence and classes so they match what the students need to make that work,” he said. “The biggest value is that (students) get to learn the most up-to-date skills.”
P-TECH is an initiative of the IBM Corporate and Social Responsibility Office, born of the recognition of the need to give back to global communities around the world, according to Tracy Knick, IBM’s corporate liaison to Skyline’s P-TECH program.
“It’s a great opportunity to have that really meaningful partnership that connects the industry employees to the community and ... have deep reach into the pool of (local talent),” she said. “It’s a system to create new collar opportunities in our communities.”
St. Vrain programs have partnered with IBM, Agilent Technologies, Novartis Gene Therapies, Tolmar, KBI Biopharma, Seagate Technologies, Cisco, Peak Resources, and Comcast to bring workplace opportunities to students.
Students are given paid or unpaid internship opportunities depending on availability, Shaffer said.
“The number of opportunities available fluctuates from year-to-year, so we manage the opportunities on a case-by-case basis. We try to match students with internships that are appropriate to their maturity level and interests,” he said.
All students receive a mentor, which, according to Sally Dyer, director of operations at Novartis Gene Therapies and P-TECH corporate liaison to and mentor, is an essential part of the program that sets it apart from other educational programs.
“It gives students the chance to interact with professionals who are the top in their field while simultaneously affording my team an opportunity to give back to our community in a way that builds a future of purpose,” she said. “I am fully vested in that outcome and being a mentor is an opportunity for me to help a student in a personal way. A mentor-mentee partnership is a two-way street.”
Jilissa Macias, after four years in Skyline’s P-TECH program, in May graduated with an associates degree in web development. Entering high school and college at the same time at age 14, propelled her growth as a person and student, she said.
“I had to essentially become a mini-professional, having to balance academics, work, internships, 5 a.m. workouts, public speaking, volunteering, and no summers off,” Macias said. “I benefitted the most because of the rigor of the program and it being a catalyst to all the many amazing opportunities it gave me, allowing me to cultivate traits like leadership, communication, teamwork, analytical thinking (and) a great amount of discipline.”
She was partnered with a mentor at IBM who lent her insight into what the real world looks like, Macias said.
“A professional relationship like that was very important because it helped relieve a lot of the pressure of being a teenager learning to navigate the corporate world correctly on top of high school, my wonderful mentor made sure I was not alone in doing it,” she said.
Like her, most of Macias’ cohort were primarily first-generation Latinx students “who do not come from wealth,” she said, and having corporate partners and mentors supported this pool of students to broaden their horizons.
“(The mentors) give us the opportunity to learn … and help us redirect our family’s history. I genuinely believe that regardless of our past, everyone can create their future with the right resources and support,” she said. “P-TECH not only gave me a degree, but it gave me a family and community of very hard-working people.”
The program seeks to engage populations who historically have been underrepresented in STEM fields, including first generation college students, youth of color and those from low-income families, according to Russell Fox, Frederick High School’s assistant principal.
“We are trying to get those population groups not just excited about and into the up-and-coming field in the community, but also hooked into careers that they had not had access to before,” he said.
In addition to coursework and industry experience, such programs help students achieve success in fields that had been unattainable in the past, Fox said, adding students have access to a dedicated counselor and learn other life skills that support their path toward graduation, including time management, organization and interview skills.
“We try to engage the community and the parents along every step of the way. … We want to make sure barriers for students are not there and that they feel supported,” Fox said, adding this is especially true for families for whom English is not their first language. “We really are asking a lot of students alongside this great opportunity, but we’re not asking something impossible.”
Such partnerships are a way to help mold the individuals who are coming into the field and for employers to have more say in the K-12 space, according to Meg John, vice president of Colorado BioScience Institute.
“People want to give back and change the face of what the industry looks like,” she said. “This is really a real opportunity to … reach down and do something at that level to get at what you cannot do at the university level, an opportunity to change what companies look like.”
For more information on P-TECH programs in SVVSD, click here.
Correction: the original version of the article stated P-TECH systems create white-collar opportunities instead of new collar. For more information on IBM's new collar training, click here.