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Technology program offers free associate's degree, mentoring to Baltimore students

P-TECH is designed to give high school students 21st-century educational opportunities and real world experience in preparation for jobs in high-demand technology fields in health and computer sciences. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Dazhnae Nixon has been tinkering with computers and cellphones since she was 8 years old, taking them apart and fixing them for friends and family.

This fall, the 15-year-old freshman at Carver-Vocational Technical High School is among the first students in a new six-year program called Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH. It promises one-on-one mentoring, paid internships, a free associate's degree and the potential for a job at a technology company.

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"Technology, that's her thing; computers, that's her thing; math, that's her thing," said Anditria Williams, Dazhnae's mother. "I just think this program has so much to offer her and can take her to that next level. I want her to get out there and experience life and go after her goals. I'm pushing her because she loves school so much."

Officials including Gov. Larry Hogan, whose team helped bring P-TECH to Maryland, and Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises celebrated the start of the program on Thursday.

P-TECH began at Carver and Dunbar high schools in Baltimore this year, and will expand next year to four more schools: two in Prince George's County and one each in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.

Hogan said the idea was brought to him by former state Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who is now on Hogan's staff.

"I was fascinated when I first heard about it," Hogan said. "I listened to stories of kids in New York and how it transformed their lives, and I said, 'We have to bring this program to Maryland.'"

Students spend six years in a high school and college curriculum. They are mentored by professionals in science, technology, engineering and math. They have opportunities for paid summer internships with companies in the field. When they graduate, they receive a high school diploma and an associate's degree.

The sponsors at Dunbar are the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and Kaiser Permanente. IBM is the partner at Carver.

IBM developed the first P-TECH school in New York in 2011. Schools in six states, including New York, Illinois and Connecticut, have adopted the model.

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Some of the early graduates have to gone to work for IBM, said Grace Suh, who directs education programs for the company.

"We need talented people to come work at our company, and it's important that we develop the talent pipeline," Suh said. "So P-TECH is a way that we can do that. ... We can begin to build a workforce for the 21st century."

About 50 students are in each cohort at each school. As the first cohort advances to the next grade, another group of 50 enrolls, and so on.

When Jennifer Thorpe heard about the program — and the small number of students who would be admitted — she "started praying."

Her son, Reginald Thorpe-Martin, had expressed an interest in science at a young age, even persuading her to buy a telescope to watch the stars. Now he's in the P-TECH program at Carver.

Thorpe said they come from a distressed neighborhood in East Baltimore, and she wants her son to be an inspiration for other children.

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"I need him to not just do this for him, but to do this for the other kids who are standing back watching," she said. "Because, who knows, if they see that he's from the same community and he's doing it, 'why can't I?'"

Donnell Mack, 33, said he wishes he had had similar opportunities when he was in high school. His son, Donnell Mack Jr., will study information technology at Carver in the P-TECH program.

"When I first heard about it, it was hard to believe," he said. "I couldn't really believe something like that would exist.

"To be honest, I'm kind of jealous."

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