Senators and NYSCOSS leaders get a peek behind the scenes at PTECH’s non-traditional learning
DEC. 9, 2015 – Eighteen months after opening its doors, lots of attention from educators and state leaders is focusing on HFM PTECH to see how a school that rejects traditional styles of learning has been named a Model School by an international consortium of education leaders. On Tuesday, Dec. 8, New York State Senator George Amedore and representatives from Senator Hugh Farley’s office visited PTECH to see for themselves.
Senator Amedore was joined by Farley representatives Jennifer Donovan and Peter Edman, along with Fulton-Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce President Mark Kilmer and several area school superintendents for a tour of the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (HFM PTECH).
That morning, Robert Lowry, Deputy Director for Advocacy, Research & Communications for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, and Terrance Pratt, Assistant Director for Government Relations for NYSCOSS, visited the school.
PTECH Principal Michael Dardaris and HFM BOCES District Superintendent Dr. Patrick Michel presented an overview of the design of the school and its curriculum, which casts off traditional classroom structure and embraces student-driven instruction and project-based learning.
“Almost everything taught here is through a project-based learning process. There are no silos of learning, one section of science, one of math, one of English language arts. Project based learning weaves the disciplines together to solve a real-world problem. Along the way, students are learning and using math, science, technology and literacy skills as tools in creating a workable solution,” Dr. Michel said.
PTECH’s business partners, who support the program and offer mentoring and internship experience, provide the problems and challenges to the students. PTECH teachers infuse the needed academic standards into the project before it is introduced to the students.
Students work in teams to develop solutions. Along the way, opportunities to demonstrate mastery of key concepts allow teachers to measure the growth of the group and its individual members.
The conclusion of the project is a presentation by the students to a panel of experts, not their teachers, who will assess the practicality and usefulness of the solution. Finally, teachers and students debrief about the project and its learning benefits.
“In a traditional model, teachers push out information to students to absorb and regurgitate on a test. Some kind of project may follow, to demonstrate what has been learned. In PTECH, the project becomes the learning. Instead of doing the instructing, teachers become assistants to the students’ inquiries and learning,” Dr. Michel said. “It turns the traditional structure on its head, but it’s much more aligned with the way people in the working world learn skills and complete a task.”
Along with the non-traditional learning environment, the PTECH program culminates in an associate’s degree for the students from Fulton-Montgomery Community College, all at no cost to their families. The program offers 10 degree options in four career clusters — business management and administration, advanced manufacturing and clean technology, information and technology and health sciences.
“The long complaint from our communities is that kids graduate and move away,” Dr. Michel said. “We’ve created a collaborative initiative with our schools, our area businesses and the college that educates students and gives them real world experience and opportunities for good-paying jobs right here in our counties.”
Students in the program take college credit-bearing courses beginning in their first year. Last year, 96 percent of PTECH students earned six college credits along with six high school credits. For many of them, they are the first member of their family to have the opportunity to attend college.
PTECH has a competitive application process. Each of HFM BOCES component schools is allotted a number of slots among each year’s class of 50 students. Last year, more than 125 students applied for 50 slots in the incoming class. After meeting certain criteria to qualify for PTECH, students complete a written application and undergo an interview process.
“It’s a lot like a job interview. We look for kids who are ready to take ownership of their own education, ready to ‘write their own story,’” Dardaris said. “Selected students feel like winners. They choose to be here, and it shows in their effort and achievement.”
Dr. Michel backs up that claim by sharing statistics that show PTECH’s inaugural class beating the state average in the Earth Science and Common core Algebra Regents.
“Remember that these students came into this program at least one or two grade levels behind in reading. Their attendance rate as a group in the year before they came to PTECH was 67 percent. In PTECH, their attendance rate is 95 percent,” Dr. Michel said. “Our students are taking ownership of their education.”
In addition, Dr. Michel points out that 10 percent of PTECH’s inaugural class are special education students. In year two, the class includes 25 percent with special education needs.
“An interesting thing has happened here with these students,” Dr. Michel explains. “Part of coming into PTECH was the proviso that all special ed aides and accommodations be left behind. All our students here are on a level playing field, and we’ve seen these students succeed without the supports.”
The results are provocative enough to bring a research team from SUNY Plattsburgh to PTECH. Their study will try to pinpoint what about PTECH’s environment and approach to learning has turned a page for these students, allowing them to work more independently and succeed academically.
The real story of PTECH lies with the students. Students guide all the tours, talking knowledgeably about their projects and PTECH, chatting with education, business and government leaders as if they’re old friends.
“So, what did you like most about school?” a visitor is likely to be asked.
In 2016, a second PTECH in the HFM BOCES region will open. The new Ag-PTECH will emphasize agricultural science, engineering, business and sustainability, along with environmental science, fisheries and wildlife technology. HFM PTECH’s alternative style and success is a model being studied during planning for the new school.
“What we’ve built here is reproducible anywhere,” Dr. Michel said. “We are successfully transforming the ‘Henry Ford assembly line’ model of education to a 21st century ‘Google’ model that spells success for our students.”