First NECA Students Graduate on May 17

Imagine completing a college degree at no cost, before you even graduate high school, and getting a dream job offer from IBM at the same time.

It’s happened to Aasim Vhora, a Norwalk High School senior– and he’s done it two full years early.  Aasim is one of 12 tech-savvy teenagers who are making state history as the first class to graduate from the Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA), Connecticut’s first, IBM-designed P-TECH school.  The NECA graduation will be held from noon to 2 p.m. May 17 at the Norwalk Inn and Conference Center.

Later in the day, the 12 NECA graduates also will graduate from Norwalk Community College with an Associate in Applied Science degree. NCC’s commencement will be held at 4:30 p.m. May 17 at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport.

NECA is  a dual enrollment, grades 9-14 program based at Norwalk High School. It was established in 2014 by IBM, Norwalk Community College and the Norwalk Public Schools. NECA students, who apply through a lottery with no academic screening, simultaneously earn a high school diploma from Norwalk High School and a tuition-free Associate degree from Norwalk Community College. They finish college without debt and with the skills to compete in well-paying technology fields or to continue their education.

The first 12 NECA students to graduate — 18% of NECA’s original cohort — successfully completed their six-year program in only four years, two years ahead of schedule. Some of these graduates will work at IBM, which provides NECA students with mentorships, worksite visits, paid internships and first-in-line consideration for available jobs. Other graduates will continue their STEM studies (in science, technology, engineering and math) at four-year colleges and universities, many with scholarships.

“These first NECA students to graduate are trailblazing young men and women,” said Norwalk Community College President David L. Levinson, Ph.D. “Not only have they balanced high school and college studies at the same time, they also have developed highly marketable career skills.”

Aasim was the first NECA graduate to accept a job offer from IBM. He will work as a Cloud Systems Analyst at IBM’s Southbury campus beginning this summer, and then, with his NCC credits, attend the University of Connecticut.

NECA and the other P-TECH schools in Connecticut are part of an innovative, national collaboration between public high schools, community colleges, and the private sector that aligns education to economic needs to fill the many vacant, “middle skill,” STEM jobs in many industries.

“The clear benefit of NECA specifically, and P-TECH in general, is that industry has input into the curriculum.  No longer do academics need to figure out what employers want from their employees.  Instead, employers are informing the academics, and we are implementing programs to meet those needs,” said Thomas Duffy, Chair of the NCC Computer Science Department. “IBM has provided us a skills assessment indicating their greatest needs.”

The IBM Foundation founded and continues to steward the P-TECH education model, which is expected to replicate at more than 110 schools in eight states by fall 2018, in partnership with approximately 70 community colleges and 450 affiliated companies.

“We’re incredibly proud of this first class of graduating students. They have embraced the opportunities that have been embedded into the NECA program, and as a result, they are graduating with both academic accomplishments and work-based skills,” said Ralph Valenzisi, Norwalk Schools Chief of Technology, Innovation and Partnerships.  “As NECA graduates, they are well-prepared for both career and personal success, and they stand as role models for other students who will follow in their path.”

Community college degrees are increasingly in demand as gateways to “middle skill” level jobs in emerging technology fields.  According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the U.S. economy will create 16 million new jobs by 2024 that will require some college education, though not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Of the more than 11 million jobs created between 2008 and 2016, 99 percent went to workers with postsecondary training.

Job prospects appear bright for those who hold Associate degrees. At the end of April 2017, there were more than 6 million job openings across America, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Many require some technology knowledge. These jobs often are left unfilled because of a skills shortage.

“P-TECH schools offer access and opportunity to college and careers,” said NECA Principal Karen Amaker. “Students gain exposure to the world of work through participation in site visits, mentoring opportunities, skills mapping, career preparation and partnership in internships.”

“We’re engaging more young women in STEM and STEM fields than ever before. NECA’s enrollment is 40% female, well above the national average of 24% women in STEM careers,” Amaker said. “We’re diversifying the talent pipeline … (and) we’re increasing graduation completion rates: Over 50% of PTECH students are completing their STEM degree in six years or less compared to the national average of 13%.”

Norwalk Community College also is encouraging more women to enter STEM fields. Last month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded NCC a $224,999 grant to develop initiatives to close the gender gap in engineering occupations and encourage more women to study engineering in college. The three-year grant will fund an NCC initiative titled Recruitment and Retention of Women in Engineering and Engineering Technology (E&ET).