by Cheryl Bentsen

IT Education: A School Grows in Brooklyn

Apr 01, 200118 mins
IT Leadership


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.

Oriel Creese, the PTA president, says some parents worried that the new curriculum was being rolled out too fast. “People do not like change that much,” she says. “But I told them that at my office there are a lot of changes. New things come up, and you just have to get in line with it, even if you don’t like it. So it’s better for the children to meet change now because that’s how the world is.”

Since the new IT curriculum was launched in September, it’s too soon to quantify success. Even so, teachers and students already point to positive change. This fall the school had only 31 suspensions, compared with 90 during the same period last year. “The perspective has changed,” Brizard says. “Kids want to come to school.”

The Bear In The Halls

One day last winter, I visited the school, where Brizard–“Mr. B.” to students, “J.C.” to colleagues–took me on a tour, pointing out recent improvements: freshly painted walls, better lighting, new hallway lockers, emblematic of the school’s rising self-esteem. At 6 feet 5 inches and 250 pounds, Brizard is no pushover. “They also call me ’The Bear,’” he says, smiling. Seeing him approach, a student stuffs the knit cap he was wearing into his pocket. “No hats, no do-rags, no gang colors,” Brizard tells me. “Those are the rules.” In the past, when trouble was brewing, kids would come to school with greased faces, making it easier to slip the hold of combatants.

Today the hallway fills with greetings: “Good morning Mr. B.,” “Mr. B., can I talk with you later?” Brizard seems to know everybody’s name. It’s that kind of concern that has won students’ respect. When the bell sounds for class, the hallway quickly clears. If Brizard has restored discipline and made the school safe for learning, he is also viewed as a hero who saved the school.

At a tech meeting in SIAC’s boardroom a day earlier, students, parents and faculty reviewed the school’s progress. Ainsley Stewart Jr., an 11th-grader and school chapter president of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), spoke up. “All we have in the library are books,” he complained, urging the school to get more computers. Brizard saw Stewart in school early the next morning, preparing for his next NSBE meeting. “We’re working on the computers for the library,” the principal said.

Students react seriously to Brizard’s commitment to make them graduates of the George Westinghouse Information Technology High, which will soon be the school’s official name.

“I think we wouldn’t even have a school without Mr. B.,” 12th-grader Clivia Neptune tells me. At this year’s high school fair, a citywide event for junior high school students gathering information about high school options, Neptune was one of 40 Westinghouse student volunteers handing out fliers and boasting about her “new” school. “It used to be if you told somebody you go to Westinghouse, they’d go, like, ’Oh my god, you go to that that jailhouse!’” she says. “Things were so bad here, one of my friend’s hair got set on fire!” The worst incident was in November 1991, when intruders broke into the school and shot a student in the back, leaving him paralyzed.

But today there’s no mistaking joy when I visit one of seven computer labs, where students sit with rapt attention, fingers flying across keyboards as they begin to master the basics of Java and C++. When the bell signals the end of class, they look up, surprised, reluctant to leave their PCs. Nobody’s worried about becoming a geek. Here, in Brooklyn, a few blocks from some of the city’s worst housing projects, the students of George Westinghouse High School think coding is cool–or “tight,” the current slang.

“I’m not going to mention names, but I have a friend who’s a gang member, and he’s really into programming” says 10th-grader Kayon Pryce. “It’s having a really positive influence on his life.”

Finishing up the first year, there’s a lot more to do. Brizard says that the IT High plan calls for installing $4 million worth of new hardware and $2 million in installation services–money from federal and private grants and the school district–of which $220,000 had been spent by February. SIAC’s involvement in the setup of IT High comes from its employees. Volunteers from the company designed and installed a LAN system to support some 300 PCs and video equipment–for security and instruction–and set up Internet access. SIAC employees also have volunteered to train teachers and mentor students.

The faculty, meanwhile, continues to ramp up. Brizard offered teachers the chance to train as technology teachers. Only a few left; some retired. Sal Contes Jr., a Westinghouse graduate and certified programmer who was teaching at the school, became the technology director. This past fall, he taught basic programming to ninth-graders, the students who will be the first class to complete the IT curriculum in 2004. “People used to say that the kids at Westinghouse weren’t so bright,” Contes says. “Well, now I call these kids my mini-hackers. They come up with terms I don’t know yet. They’re learning all this stuff on the Internet. They’ll say, ’We know this, this is nice, but what about…?’ It’s all I can do to stay one step ahead–and I love it.”

Cosgrove, the SIAC champion of IT High, is now advising Brooklyn Tech, one of the city’s premiere engineering high schools, how to get in step with the marketplace (see “Grassroots Rules,” Page 126). “What we’re doing is giving kids knowledge–something nobody can take away from them,” he says.

McQuade offers some pointers: “Companies need to realize that if you want to overcome the shortage of IT workers, you’ve got to attack the ’digital divide.’ To get at that, you need to find people in your organization who are willing, and then you have to give them some time to really get something done. You have to pick a school where there is real leadership you can work with and that needs help and wants help. And you have to focus your effort and try to make a difference in a place; let the next organization take on the next problem. I think if everybody did that you’d impact a lot of schools in a positive way. A lot of these kids are impressed by the fact that there are some adults in suits who actually are interested in what happens to them and cares. I think if you deliver on that commitment, you’ll probably never get paid for it, but you certainly won’t get hurt by it.”

Brizard likes knowing that his IT students will go out into the world with measured skills. “In the past, vocational students had only the teacher’s recommendation to show a prospective employer. So a teacher gives you a stamp of approval, what does that actually mean? But if I can say that 90 percent of my kids in the Cisco program passed certification, then I’ve got a real measure. No one can say that we cheated or fixed the numbers or that we are giving somebody a false sense of hope.”

Albanese-DePinto, now the senior superintendent for New York City high schools, says that Brizard is special. Twice named teacher of the year among Brooklyn and Staten Island high school faculty, his classes averaged a passing rate of 80 percent on the New York State Regents physics exam. In 1995 everyone passed.

Brizard says he taught his students as if they would pass the state test. “I believed in their capacity,” he says. “For many years you saw a pool of untapped talent here. Kids who could have. Look at somebody like [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell who got a break. His world changed. I tell my kids, there’s a big world out there beyond Brooklyn.”