As June winds to a close, so does PTECH, or the Pathways to Early Career High School program, a four-year-old effort that aimed to help rural Idaho students continue their education after high school graduation.
PTECH was the work of educators such as Alan Millar, a former school administrator in Sandpoint who sought to create partnerships between schools and local companies to provide students with internships, apprenticeships and other opportunities in technology, healthcare and aerospace and advanced manufacturing.
The program won support in 2014 from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which Millar estimates spent about $7 million to help PTECH get off the ground. Millar – and the foundation – had planned to supplement, and eventually operate, the program with financial help from cooperating companies nearby. When Millar, PTECH’s executive director, couldn’t secure that corporate support, he said, the JKAF foundation eventually decided to pull the plug effective June 30. About 50 students who were already enrolled in PTECH-supported programs will be able to continue over the next two years to complete their work, Millar said.
PTECH (not to be confused with KTEC, the brick-and-mortar Kootenai Technical-Educational campus in Rathdrum) illustrates the difficulty of providing rural Idaho students with opportunities to earn the skills that companies repeatedly say they need. Idaho lags badly behind most other states with its “go-on” rate, the rate at which high school students move on to further training or education.
JKAF has made correcting the go-on rate a primary goal for years, and the state Department of Education and lawmakers have also implemented changes aimed at improving the rate. However, the rate hasn’t really moved since 2016, when it was 45 percent, according to Idaho EdNews (a JKAF-supported online news service). In fact, the rate has fallen slightly from 2015, when 46 percent of Idaho graduates went straight to college.
Millar had modeled PTECH after a program in New York City that worked with IBM to train students in the skills that company needed. He said a similar program in Colorado had a commitment of $15,000 per student from companies that used apprenticeships to train students. He understands why the foundation pulled its funding but doesn’t accept that Idaho companies declined to commit to PTECH. He asked for $10,000 donations and got one, from Western States Caterpillar. Many companies, he said, were unwilling to invest because they didn’t have any way of knowing students they invested in would stay with them and work.
“We’ve heard about that critical talent gap,” Millar said. “The discussion is all about talent and the next generation of workers, but, at least in Idaho, the companies we work with talk a good game but they haven’t really stepped up.”
Roger Quarles, the executive director for the JKAF, declined to say anything about the foundation’s decision to pull funding for PTECH, saying JKAF will publish a report on the project in several months. But Millar said he fully understood why the foundation would decide to use its money elsewhere.
“The ideal way to run a program like ours would be with foundation dollars and state dollars and industry dollars,” he said. “The state of Idaho paid lip service but wasn’t willing to step up, and some of that had to do with the quality, or lack thereof, of leadership at the state level, in the state Department of Education and the governor’s office.
“JKAF were the only people who cared enough to invest.”
Idaho educators whom I talk to about higher ed invariably say the biggest obstacles for Idaho students are tuition costs and a culture that doesn’t encourage post-secondary education. PTECH was designed to help students overcome those roadblocks with classes in soft skills, remote coaching to combat self-doubt and inertia, trips to Boise for things like coding class and conferences, and financial assistance with books and tuition.
Summer is the time when many graduates lose interest and impetus despite having vowed to go on to college just a few months earlier, said Mitzi Vesecky, the academic advisor at Forrest Bird Charter School in Sandpoint. PTECH stayed with students through the summer, calling them, checking in and helping them stay on track, she said.
“For the seniors who aren’t in the 25 percent whose parents went to college and who have financial support, a lot of them fall through the cracks,” Vesecky said. “They were looking at getting at least an AA degree, and then there’s nobody kind of pulling them along in the summer months. They get a job and stay there.”
“It certainly helped our students,” said Dawn Schatz, who worked with PTECH students in various capacities at Clark Fork Jr./Sr. High School. “For students whose parents don’t have any education, who have no plan whatsoever, it’s very important for them because it gives them an idea of what they can do, especially if they want to stay in this area.”
PTECH served more than 800 students between 2014 and 2018, said Stephanie Childress, PTECH’s program director.
Many schools don’t even have enough money to supply a bus, much less set up a conference where students can learn how to dress and act in a professional setting, said Noé Zepeda, southern Idaho regional manager for PTECH. Most rural school administrators also don’t have the connections with employers, Zepeda said. He said he saw a difference happen with PTECH students.
“It was simple things, like you could see a kid’s improve posture over the months, and he would start to look more confident, or even in the way they responded to emails or asked questions,” he said. “We were helping them mature and develop and be a lot more confident.”
The state’s Advanced Opportunities Program does provide $4,125 for each student to earn college credits while they’re in high school. But that’s just part of the picture, said Schatz. She talked about a very shy student of hers at Clark Fork who, through PTECH, learned how to talk with strangers, promote her own skills and interview.
“PTECH pushed her emotional and behavioral boundaries, and she became much more comfortable dealing with strangers and making the small talk,” Schatz said. “It’s great that the state is providing the dual credit money, but there is a lot more to it; you can’t just throw money at a student and expect them to succeed. You have to have the other kinds of support that PTECH includes like life skills, decision-making, time-management.”
Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.