(Photo by Juliana Reyes)
Michael Washington has two big dreams.
One is to develop a flying car. The other is to graduate college with no debt.
That’s why Washington, 23, of Germantown, applied to become a Digital Service Fellow. The program, run out of the Philadelphia School District and supported by a mix of public and private dollars, is an apprenticeship for high school grads who choose not to go straight to college. It trains students in tech support and places them at Philadelphia public schools, where they work as technicians.
Washington, who was homeschooled by his mother, couldn’t afford to go straight to college. He hopes that the apprenticeship will help him get the Drexel Liberty Scholarship, which he described as “the only way [he] can go to college.” It’s a full ride to the university.
Washington is one of 23 Digital Service Fellows this year. Past fellows have gone on to work at web dev firm Jarvus Innovations, digital filing firm The Neat Company and Apple retailer Springboard Media.
Despite its success in training public school students for technology careers, the decades-old Urban Technology Project, which runs the fellowship, has seen its budget shrink as funding on all levels — city, state, federal — has dried up.
In 2013, its total budget was roughly $1.5 million, which supported 18 digital service fellows as well as UTP staff and 27 School District computer technicians. In 2014, as the federal Americorps program got slashed and the School District’s budget situation grew increasingly dire, that number winnowed to just under $1 million, according to data that UTP founder Edison Freire provided to Technical.ly Philly last spring. That meant UTP had to cut staff and the number of computer technicians jobs it could provide — in half.
At the program’s height in the last five years, in 2010 and 2011, its budget was roughly $2.4 million and supported more than 70 positions, a mix of apprentices, technicians and staff.
But there’s hope yet.
The federal government plans to invest $100 million in apprenticeships — the largest U.S. investment in apprenticeships to date, said U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez at a press conference at the School District Thursday. There’s a special emphasis on technology-focused apprenticeships, or those that will prepare students for “emerging industries,” according to a government release. Grants will range from $2.5 million to $5 million.
“Apprenticeships are not just your ticket to the middle class,” Perez said. “It’s the other college, without the debt.”
Before the press conference, Perez, along with top dogs Mayor Michael Nutter, Superintendent William Hite and Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr, met several of this year’s Digital Service Fellows, who showed the officials the laptops they’d been fixing and the apps they’d built (Perez and Nutter will particularly tickled by the augmented reality apps).
Perez said the $100 million grant competition is an effort to scale apprenticeships that work and pointed to UTP as an example of that.
“The Urban Technology Project is exactly the type of model for how we train the workforce of tomorrow,” Perez said.
It was a nice moment of recognition for a program that has largely flown under the radar and was a labor of love for Freire, a former science teacher who got interested in using technology in the classroom when he saw how it helped his bilingual students learn English.
- (Why’d the Department of Labor choose Philadelphia and UTP as a setting for the announcement? They read this Technical.ly Philly story about how Jarv.us had hired UTP apprentices, said spokesman Jason Kuruvilla.)
UTP plans to apply for the grant, UTP staffer Jacob Feinberg confirmed.
What would the money mean to UTP?
The program could accommodate more apprentices and offer more technician jobs, which apprentices often graduate to. It could provide tech support for more Philadelphia public schools. It could expand to include more education about programming and web design to prep its students for jobs as developers. Freire outlined these possibilities in a conversation with Technical.ly Philly about UTP’s budget last spring.
It would mean reaching more students like Washington, the Digital Service Fellow who hopes to get his mechanical engineering degree at Drexel so he can build a flying car.
Washington said he knew was in the right place when, during his fellowship interview, program manager Beth St. Clair asked him, “What do you want to do in life?”
“That rocked my world because people never asked me that,” he said. “They always assumed.”