In Trenton, plans to equip students for careers in tech fields

Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday unveiled a program at Trenton Central High School allowing science and tech students to graduate with both a diploma and an associate degree — part of a push to better align instruction at New Jersey’s secondary schools with the workforce needs of a changing economy.

Tapping a grant of nearly $200,000, the program will offer 150 students at the recently rebuilt school in the state capital a six-year course of study in so-called STEM areas — science, technology, engineering and math — that also includes workplace experience through mentorships and internships.

“These young folks will graduate and they will get really good jobs,” said the first-term Democrat who campaigned on a platform of remaking education in the state. “Good wages, good benefits, allowing them over time to comfortably leg in and bring their own families up in a secure, middle-class environment in this great state.”

“Me, I would like to become an architect,” said Jonathan Rodriguez, a student at Trenton Central. “I mean, it’s like a great opportunity for us, for the future.”

With the announcement, Trenton joins three other New Jersey school districts with so-called P-TECH programs — Burlington, New Brunswick and Paterson. Standing for “Pathways in Technology Early College High School, the model was co-developed by IBM, community colleges and area businesses with the goal of a providing a pipeline of talent for local industry.

Murphy said the P-TECH program fits with other training and apprenticeship programs he’s championed.

“When coupled with our new Jobs NJ program for continual training, we will be able to ensure that  the skills learned in the P-TECH classroom are constantly upgraded and expanded,” Murphy said. “This is a true win, win, win.”

According to IBM, there are 100,000 students at 200 P-TECH schools around the world, offering a six-year program that provides graduates with “the skills and knowledge they need to continue their studies or step easily into high-growth, ‘new collar’ jobs … in some of the nation’s fastest-growing industries where what matters most is having in-demand skills.”

Trenton’s brand-new Central High opened for classes in September, after a $150 million makeover on the same grounds as its predecessor — a classic, column-fronted structure that was plagued by peeling asbestos, leaking toilets and moldy classrooms. Salvaged architectural flourishes — like a traditional column cap and a Lenox chandelier — now grace the new building and provide a sense of continuity.

But it’s the updated technical features, including new labs and interactive smart boards, that help make this school a much better candidate for P-TECH, officials say.

“We didn’t have the facilities, honestly, so it’s difficult to create those kinds of programs and prepare students for the world of technology when … that equipment and those technological devices are not available,” said Hope Grant, Central High’s principal. “This building provides every single student the opportunity.”

The renewal of the school is a source of pride in Trenton.

“This is a real morale-booster,” said Mayor Reed Gusciora. “The $150 million project — the high school just opened — we have a STEM academy, we have great science labs. So the tools are all here so that they can succeed in a 21st Century economy.”

Officials say P-TECH is geared to prepare students for jobs in such high-growth fields as solar panels and 5G infrastructure for cellular companies.

Officials at Central High were scheduled to meet with parents Thursday night to inform them about the new program, which officially kicks off in September.

Students said they are eager to get started.

“If you don’t go for that job, there’s somebody out there that’s working harder than you for that job,” said sophomore Joseph Argueta.

Jacqueline Rivera, also a sophomore, said she was impressed by the prospect of her school being part of P-TECH.

“Not a lot of programs do that for us, for students to have a career after high school,” she said. “Not only do we graduate with a diploma, we also have an associate degree.”

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