This fall, dozens of ninth-graders at three Capitol region high schools are slated to start a six-year job training program that will put them in line for potential jobs at IBM and Dow Chemical.

IBM pioneered the concept in 2011 at a high school in Brooklyn. Known as P-TECH — Pathways in Technology Early College High School — the technology giant has since launched programs at 90 high schools across seven states, as well as Australia and Morocco, and the company is predicting that number to top 120 by next school year.

Tara High in Baton Rouge has been selected to team up with IBM to launch the company’s first P-TECH program in Louisiana. Coursework will focus on engineering and computer science. Meanwhile, Dow is adapting and expanding its existing “process technology” pathways at Brusly and Port Allen high schools to mirror the format of IBM’s program.

Students enrolled will not only pursue their high school diplomas but associate’s degrees in applied science with local community colleges via a mix of dual enrollment and in-person courses, and all free of charge.

IBM announced Wednesday it will establish a first-of-its-kind software development center at the former site of The Advocate, a move that will…

IBM and DOW will not only offer mentoring and internships to participating students, but they are committing to giving job interviews to all students who complete the program.

Donald Songy, a senior policy advisor to Gov. John Bel Edwards and a former Ascension Parish school superintendent, said IBM approached the governor almost a year ago with the idea of setting up a P-TECH program in Louisiana. Songy said he expects the program will expand to more schools over time.

“When it shows itself to be successful, we’re going to bring it to other parts of the state and possibly into other fields,” Songy said.

The West Baton Rouge Parish school system and Dow are working with River Parishes Community College to expand their process technology programs at Brusly and Port Allen high schools.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a cooperative agreement with IBM, as well as Baton Rouge Community College, to get the program rolling this fall; the board is planning a final vote on April 19.

“I think this is really exciting and I’m excited for Tara High,” board member Dawn Collins said Thursday.

Associate Superintendent Ben Necaise said Tara High is a good fit because it has many students who would be first-time college students, but also the school has a strong cyber-engineering program. He said the initial P-TECH cohort will include around 20 to 30 ninth-graders.

“We’re going to keep it small at first,” Necaise said.

In a statement, Jennifer Ryan Crozier, president of the IBM Foundation, said she is happy to see P-TECH expand in Louisiana. She said it “connects career and classroom in a unique way,” and prepares student for good “21st century jobs.”

“There has been a lot of interest in adopting the P-TECH model here in the immediate future, and we can't wait to see what tomorrow brings,” Crozier said.

Unlike many other specialized educational programs, P-TECH has no entrance requirements.

“I’ve been impressed that a major corporation is committed to the idea that everyone can learn,” said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College system.

“It gives people who are not in the best of circumstances an opportunity to get a job with earning potential and it can fundamentally change their life,” Sullivan added.

The students’ college coursework, while they are still in high school, will be paid for by state money currently earmarked for dual enrollment, and Sullivan said his office is looking at other higher education funding streams to pay for the courses that students complete after they earn their high school diploma. A small number of students at other P-TECH schools manage to complete both their high school and their college coursework by the end of senior year, he said.

IBM is not putting up cash to fund the program, but is contributing a lot of “sweat equity,” said company spokesman Ari Fishkind.

“The time we do spend with each partner school, and the time we invest to help advance the model overall, is considerable if we had to break out the costs of our employees' time and skill,” Fishkind said.

For instance, as part of its agreement with the school system, IBM is pledging to have a liaison who will work directly with Tara High staff and students.

In late February, a contingent of school leaders from Louisiana flew to New York to see two P-TECH schools in action. Songy said he was “very, very impressed” with how focused and motivated the students there were and that they showed unusual independence for high school students.

Sullivan had a similar reaction.

“This is a concept that people really need to see in action to see how it functions,” he said.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.

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