IT Education: A School Grows in Brooklyn


Learn about an innovative approach to vocational education designed to boost the IT labor force

See how your company could make a difference in your community

Read how IT can be a positive influence in young people’s lives

Jean-Claude Brizard remembers his first day as a physics teacher at George Westinghouse High School in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y. "I walked into the building and--I’ll never forget it--there were kids all over the first floor hanging out," he says. The stairwells smelled of marijuana; several fights broke out that day. Still a rookie science teacher, the Haitian-born chemist had applied in 1990 to work there after associating its name with the Westinghouse Talent Search, famous for identifying top high school science and math students.

Instead of finding budding Nobel laureates, Brizard discovered a vocational school better known for its former students who went on to become rappers, recording industry stars like Lil’ Kim, Jay-Z and the late Biggie Smalls. Students were not meeting state academic requirements; enrollment was dwindling; crime was rampant; teacher morale was in the dumps. George Westinghouse High School was on the state’s radar for possible closure. Its curriculum, which trained students in fields such as jewelry repair and carpentry, failed to prepare them for today’s labor market. Students faced few academic requirements and whiled away their days in so-called shop classes, making nameplates, menorahs. "Boy Scout projects," Brizard calls them, leaving students with "nothing

you could take into the real world to get a good job. I hate to use the words dumping ground, but that’s how many people regard vocational high schools." For the vast majority, Westinghouse was a dead end.

Looking around that first day at unruly students--some wearing skull-tight bandannas called "do-rags" and other insignia of the Bloods and Crips street gangs--and at dark, dingy hallways and graffiti-scrawled walls, Brizard saw weariness and fear on teachers’ faces and wondered, "What the hell am I getting myself into?"

A decade later, Brizard, 37, has taken charge as principal to lead a daring experiment to reinvent George Westinghouse as the nation’s first IT high school, where eventually all 1,100 students in grades nine through 12 will study computer programming or computer-aided design in addition to academic courses. In New York City, where, as Brizard puts it, "Every cab driver has a Cisco book on his seat," Westinghouse’s mission is unique: to train high school students for IT careers. The goal is to produce students who can go on to college or straight into jobs as certified technicians and programmers, a partial answer to the ongoing shortage of skilled IT workers. If Brooklyn’s "IT High" succeeds, it could serve as a model for the overhaul of outdated vocational high schools, most of which are scrambling to keep pace with a changing economy and rising academic expectations. Early signs at the school--students’ enthusiasm, a renewed commitment from faculty (after some staff turnover) and parents who have rallied support after some early resistance--say that it will.

Educational reform is not an easy business. George Westinghouse High School’s transformation came about through the commitment of three skillful leaders. There was Brizard, the school principal; Brian Cosgrove, a savvy ex-cop who got his company, the Securities Industry Automation Corp. (SIAC), involved in the inner-city school; and Charles B. McQuade, chairman and CEO of SIAC, who saw education as the best way his company could make a difference in its neighborhood and has supported employees’ donating their time to do it. "This was not some PR job," McQuade says. "You know the type--adopt a school, go over there one day a year to paint, some crap like that. This was the result of sustained commitment."

Schools are top-of-mind for employers and policy-makers alike. In January, then President-elect George W. Bush met with 16 high-tech executives who identified education of IT workers as a priority for the economy. The U.S. Department of Education issued a report in December that said it would focus more on how new technology can be used to improve learning rather than simply advocating more classroom computers get installed. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and others have donated millions to promote schools that emphasize technological literacy, which to them means more than delivering computer boxes to classrooms. (See "San Diego’s IT High," Page 122.)

George Westinghouse High School, an inner-city school that caters to a low-income minority community, fits this bill. It’s not an exam school. Its new curriculum emphasizes computer programming, LAN and WAN networking skills, computer-aided drafting, and website building and design, in addition to studies in the humanities and science. Shop classes like jewelry repair are out. Java is in. And here’s where Cisco certification comes in: George Westinghouse students will take classes to prepare them for exams in network installation, support, network engineering and design.

The Corporate Stake In It High

From his 10th-floor office, McQuade, SIAC’s 58-year-old chairman, commands a sweeping view of the lower Manhattan skyline. "If it weren’t for that sign," he says cheerfully, glancing at a billboard atop a nearby roof, "it would be almost perfect." McQuade was less happy in 1990, when SIAC moved from Wall Street to MetroTech, a high-tech office complex in downtown Brooklyn, a block from George Westinghouse High School. "We knew it would get better, but it was a dump when we got here," he says. SIAC’s computer systems keep the stock markets running. After a series of terrorist bombings on Wall Street in the 1980s, SIAC’s parent company, the New York Stock Exchange, suggested the move. "Plain and simple, we didn’t want everything in one location," he says.

MetroTech breathed new life into a once-blighted area. The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce bills it "Wall Street West" or "New York’s Left Bank," an alternative to Manhattan’s high rents that has attracted companies such as SIAC, Bear Stearns & Co., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Keyspan and a Marriott Hotel. Across a landscaped courtyard are Polytechnic University and New York Technical College; nearby are headquarters for the New York City Fire Department’s and the Police Department’s emergency systems.

But only a few blocks away are some of the city’s worst housing projects--Ingersoll and Whitman, names intoned as if to suggest prisons--and neighborhoods like Fort Greene, associated with drugs, street crime and gang turf wars. Fights between the Bloods and Crips, some of whose members are students from George Westinghouse High School, occasionally have spilled into the courtyard in front of SIAC’s offices.

Wall Street seemed a world away. "It was depressing, at first," says McQuade. "We felt a little like frontiersmen." A few people left the company, but, overall, SIAC’s 1,400 employees have experienced less crime in Brooklyn than on Wall Street. Also, fear works both ways. When the company invited local kids to a Christmas party, some hesitated at the door, asking a security guard, "You’re sure we’re allowed in here?"

In 1987, SIAC hired Cosgrove, now 57, an 18-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, to assess security issues related to the planned move across the East River. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Cosgrove retired as a homicide detective in 1982, as the result of severe injuries he suffered trying to stop a rape. He’s now head of SIAC’s corporate communications and community relations departments, but says he still misses the challenge of police work. As a cop, he won numerous citations for excellence in community outreach.

Cosgrove caught McQuade’s notice in 1990, at a function both attended at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. "Congressmen, assemblymen, state senators, judges, everybody knew Brian," McQuade says. "He has an innate talent for putting people together and making things happen."

Brooklyn’s mean streets were an eye-opener for McQuade. "On Wall Street, we hid behind [our] parents [at the NYSE] when it came to charitable involvement," he says. "We really didn’t think about it. In Brooklyn, we couldn’t cop a poor boy posture. We were visible and probably perceived to be bigger than we are."

After giving it some thought, McQuade decided the company could best help the community through initiatives in the schools. After some scouting, Cosgrove came up with the first project in 1992, at PS 287 in Fort Greene, where 30 SIAC employees volunteered to tutor students at the elementary school. By 1994, this tutoring effort had evolved into the nation’s first e-mentoring school program, with students and volunteers communicating by e-mail. Since then, Cosgrove’s team of volunteers has grown to more than 200. Volunteer work is done on company time, provided employees meet their project deadlines at the office. Last year, the volunteers put in 7,000 hours at 13 Brooklyn public and private schools. In the past 10 years, SIAC has given out 37 scholarships to Brooklyn high school students; 14 have become full-time employees, and 18 of the scholarship winners are still in school. The nearby tech college students, who intern summers at SIAC, take real-life work experience back to the classroom, which, in turn, keeps professors sharp.

"Our work in the schools started as a sort of altruism," says McQuade. "But the payback is far more than we expected. We’re looking at the schools as a potential future source of recruitment. We’re giving kids a taste for technology. It’s a terrifically rewarding program for us in both attracting and retaining people to work here. Even our employees who aren’t volunteers like the idea that the company is involved in the community."

A Radical Proposal

In 1998, Cosgrove went to the New York City Board of Education with a radical plan to create a high school to train IT workers. He suggested George Westinghouse High School "because we wanted a school that would really serve the kids from central Brooklyn," he says. The board--normally intractable, a nest of politics--knew of SIAC’s work in the schools and liked the idea.

As he developed the plan, Cosgrove consulted with educators at Long Island University, New York City Technical College and Polytechnic University, and a think tank called the Center for Children and Technology. In early 1999 the Board of Education faxed a copy of the proposal for IT High, as it came to be known, to the school principal, who ignored it for months.

In June 1999, the principal resigned, and Brizard, then an assistant principal, was given the job. "I needed a principal who could save the school," says Rose Albanese-DePinto, then superintendent for the Brooklyn and Staten Island high schools and a key supporter of Cosgrove’s plan. "If we didn’t immediately attack the problems [at Westinghouse], it would end up as a school under state registration review. That’s a terrible thing to happen to any school, a label that means you’re a failing school--and everyone in the city and in the state will know it. When we interviewed J.C. [Brizard] I felt that he understood the charge. Most important, he really cares about children."

In September 1999--a year before the launch--there was still a feeling of impending doom among teachers and students, who feared the school might close and become an office building or dormitory for one of the technology colleges. "I looked at it as if we had a child in the emergency room," says Brizard. Teachers who heard rumors about IT High feared for their jobs. The academic and vocational teachers refused to share a table in the cafeteria. Parents demanded to know what was going on. Around the school, the phrase IT High turned into a joke.

The Want Ads Moment

The turning point came at Brizard’s first meeting with the PTA. The agenda was "An Evening with the Principal," and a roomful of angry parents and teachers awaited him, some holding placards that read "Save Jewelry Making" and "Save Vocational Education."

Brizard had been warned, and he entered the room smiling and calm. Then he got down to business. "OK, you guys want to save jewelry making, fine," he said to them. "How many kids have you placed in industry in the past 20 years? Twenty-five years? Thirty years?" They couldn’t name more than three or four kids. He pressed on: "When you have a class of 28 a year who graduated from this program, and you can name only three or four kids over 30 years, what kind of service are we giving our kids?" A few people still insisted that jewelry making is a great option. Brizard replied that his wife is an artist: "She has a degree in art, she loves jewelry making--but she’s a medical assistant."

Next, Brizard held up the employment ads from the newspapers and told them he couldn’t find a single job ad for jewelry making. "I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I couldn’t find any," he said. Using The New York Times he showed the dozens of ads offering high pay for programmers. "What we’re trying to do here is not to kill vocational education, but to reinvent it to roll with society, to change," he said. "A+ certification [for Cisco networking skills] is a real vocational program. You can’t get that option anyplace else." After the speech, the placards disappeared.

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