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Providing breakthrough opportunities for Colorado youth

Removing barriers to education opportunities

America’s economy and our public schools are inextricably linked. In Colorado, growth industries such as advanced manufacturing, information technology (IT) and aerospace have strengthened our economy and provided the foundation for innovation and investment in our communities. To continue supporting high levels of growth and success, we must ensure that our education system is preparing our children to meet the needs of an accelerated world. Today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce demand an education that is rooted in rigorous academics and provides growth opportunities for career training and postsecondary learning that will give them a competitive advantage for in-demand jobs.

While most of the 10 million high-wage jobs created over the last 10 years—including thousands of unfilled positions in Colorado’s growth industries—required postsecondary degrees, a 2015 University of Pennsylvania study revealed that only nine percent of low-income 24-year olds possessed these degrees. Now more than ever, it is essential that we remove barriers to educational opportunities that empower the success of future generations – especially those from low-income families. Strengthening the connection between industry needs and workforce readiness accelerates every state’s economic viability – Colorado included.

Governor Hickenlooper addressed this issue head-on in his recent State of the State address – highlighting Colorado’s need to provide innovative pathways for young people to strengthen our economy. With many options available, the Governor and state legislators paved the way for Colorado to join the global network of P-TECH schools that are reinventing secondary and college education. These schools are creating a seamless path from school to college and career, and connecting our students directly to fast-growing New Collar careers – where what matters most is having in-demand skills.

P-TECH is an innovative, six-year program that launched nearly two years ago at Skyline High School in St. Vrain Valley Schools. The Skyline P-TECH program, known as Falcon Tech, is preparing historically underrepresented young people both academically and professionally for 21st-century jobs in Colorado’s understaffed growth industries.

Nearly 70 percent of Falcon Tech students come from low-income, Hispanic households, most are first generation college students, and more than half are achieving the honor roll. In addition, the school’s 100 ninth and tenth graders already have accumulated approximately 450 college credits through Front Range Community College. This number will grow to more than 1,000 credits by the end of this semester.

When given access and opportunity, our young people are achieving at unprecedented rates, and demonstrating their drive to succeed. They’re also receiving significant support from the school’s corporate partner, IBM, which created the education model that has spread rapidly to 90 schools across seven states and abroad. More than 400 other companies have embraced this breakthrough education program, partnering with school districts and community colleges. In St. Vrain Valley Schools, Falcon Tech students are paired with IBM engineers, serving as mentors, and earn paid internship opportunities. In addition, successful graduates will also be first in line for available jobs at IBM.

The first of these P-TECH schools in Brooklyn, New York, demonstrated great success by achieving a graduation rate over four times the U.S. on-time average for all community college students and even higher compared with all low-income students. Equally important, no student needs to enroll in expensive, remedial courses. Many of these motivated young people are fast-tracking through—finishing one to two years early and then matriculating at four-year colleges, accepting high-growth positions with IBM, or both.

Falcon Tech, in its second year, is demonstrating strong early results, which indicate that we’re on the right path toward creating lifelong opportunities for all students in Colorado.

This new model, which is working in urban, suburban and rural communities, is exceeding expectations for what America’s young people can achieve with the right motivation, opportunities and support. We owe it to our young people—and to our state—to expand this unique opportunity for many more Colorado youth.

Don Haddad is the superintendent of St. Vrain Valley Schools, Colorado’s seventh largest public school district. Jennifer Ryan Crozier is president of the IBM Foundation.

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