Idaho PTECH: Building the “Last Mile” of Opportunity for Rural Students
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Idaho PTECH: Building the “Last Mile” of Opportunity for Rural Students

Alex Hernandez

Niki is a senior at Clark Fork High School in rural Idaho, an 80-student high school in a town of 530 people, eight hours away from Boise.

“I want to be my own person, get a job and take care of myself,” says Niki matter-of-factly. “I’m interested in aerospace.”

She has dreams just like the other 5.6 million children who live in rural and small town America--enough young people to fill all the public schools in New York City five times over. But Niki’s aspirations collide with the reality that Idaho trails the nation in college attendance, household income and other measures of what-we’d-hope-for-our-children’s-future. That’s where the Idaho PTECH Network comes in.

The Idaho PTECH Network is a partnership between high schools, community colleges and employers so that the middle 50% of Idaho students, no matter where they live, can access college and jobs. Participating students take college classes and gain valuable exposure to employers during grades 11 - 14 (i.e., high school through community college) with the hope that these experiences lead to more secure, upwardly-mobile futures.

Idaho PTECH is beta testing its programs this year with 60 students across eight high schools, and it will add 100-200 students per year as it proves out its model. Let’s take a deeper look.

Adapting education innovations to rural America

The Idaho PTECH Network was inspired by a program started in New York.

P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) was hatched in Brooklyn, New York as a high school that enjoys a unique partnership between the New York City Department of Education, IBM and the City University of New York (CUNY). Stanley Litow, an IBM executive, is widely credited for this promising idea of how to bring public education and industry closer together. President Obama hailed the school’s opening in 2013, bringing international attention to the nascent effort.

The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation caught wind of P-TECH in New York and wondered how the concept could be applied to a more rural setting like Idaho. They issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) challenging Idaho educators to launch a new organization, inspired by P-TECH in New York, but adapted to Idaho’s unique context. P-TECH and the Idaho PTECH Network do not have a formal relationship but their example demonstrates how innovative ideas can travel to new geographies.

Replicating P-TECH in Idaho creates a different set of challenges. Idaho is not the global headquarters of IBM and hundreds of other corporate titans; it has many small, regional employers scattered throughout the state. The Idaho population is also low-density, making reach and “last mile” access critically important in order to serve students in isolated areas.

Idaho PTECH founders Alan Millar, Deb Pence and Molly Huckaby organized PTECH as a network, so they can bundle college and career opportunities across long distances in ways that students find valuable. Online college courses and virtual coaches are one way to extend the program’s reach, but Idaho PTECH must also extend the social capital that plays such a huge role in launching young people’s careers.

Let’s look at how they’re doing it.

Accessing college and jobs no matter where you live

Idaho PTECH students pick among three prominent local industries--Aerospace / Advanced Manufacturing, Technology and Healthcare--and spend part of their junior and senior high school years taking relevant online college classes through Idaho community colleges. The idea is that students can obtain an industry certificate and/or an associate’s degree within one to two years of high school graduation. Idaho PTECH picks up the tab for college tuition, so cost is not a barrier to that first credential.

Idaho PTECH also connects students to employers, initially through career days and field trips, and later through internships and job shadow opportunities. A recent survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that internships and employment during college were ranked by employers as the two most important attributes when evaluating college graduates for entry-level positions. Participating employers commit that Idaho PTECH graduates can interview for a full-time role after completing their credential, although there is no guarantee of employment. At that point, students can either access a quality job or continue on to a bachelor’s program.

Supporting students in their journey

High schools that join the Idaho PTECH network must have a staff member serve as the PTECH Facilitator. The facilitators are often well-known to students because schools are small and communities are close-knit. The PTECH facilitators liaise with Idaho PTECH, coordinate campus-based activities, track students’ progress toward graduation and often supervise a dedicated class period where students work on their online college courses.

In addition, every PTECH student is provided a virtual coach through InsideTrack, an organization that helps students build the “soft” skills they need to succeed in college. Payton, a PTECH student from Melba says, “I absolutely love my coach, Hayley. She keeps me accountable, gives me tips and helps me stay motivated… It’s nice to know someone [in a different part of the country] is cheering for me.”

Hayley, who is the InsideTrack coach, currently works with all 60 PTECH students and has individual phone meetings 1-4 times a month with each student, plus a steady stream of email and text communications.

“The majority of students I [coach] want to do something with their lives and are a bit scared about how that is going to happen,” says Hayley. “The desire is there, but not the know-how.” Hayley spends a lot of time helping PTECH students find resources, advocate for themselves, and discover strengths they already have and can continue to nurture, like persistence and communication.

Finally, students journey in cohorts, initially with other PTECH students at their individual high schools and colleges. But eventually, cohorts of students in the Technology pathway, for example, will be able to virtually connect across the network. Payton noted that all the Melba PTECH students were taking a computer programming course for the first time and bonding over their shared experiences.

Hacking the American Dream

PTECH co-founder Alan Millar is trying to prove that education innovation is not just something that happens in New York City or Silicon Valley, but that Idaho towns like Clark Fork, Melba and Kellogg deserve to have education entrepreneurs “hacking” the American Dream for its children.

The American dream is elusive for many in Idaho. Only half of Idaho high school graduates go on to college. And even fewer students complete a college degree and find a job that earns a living wage; many students fall between the cracks at each step of the way. The Idaho PTECH Network is trying to change those odds for the students who need it most by providing them with increased access to college and career at a critical time in their lives. In the words of one PTECH student, “It just opens up so many doors.”

Editor's Note: Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks. He is also an official EdSurge columnist.

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