Engaged Families and Communities

Troy TA members Jon Getbehead, left, and Seth Cohen with NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue. Photo by Andrew Watson.

Union-Business Partnership Creating Opportunities for Kids in NY

It’s a question that has loomed large over every statewide election, every legislative session, and millions of kitchen tables from Albany to Buffalo over the past quarter century – what to do about the Upstate New York economy?

The area, loosely defined as the region of New York north of the New York City metropolitan area, is filled with cities and towns that at one time sprung up around major employers, such as manufacturing plants and paper mills, that have long since downsized, closed or relocated. The area’s economic transition has created problems ranging from pockets of high unemployment and poverty to “flight,” where skilled, educated graduates were forced to leave the area in search of work.

But those problems, which have lingered for decades, are beginning to improve, thanks to a partnership between the state teacher’s union, community leaders and local businesses.

In 2001, state leaders and the University at Albany launched an ambitious initiative to generate 21st-century jobs in Upstate New York by creating “Tech Valley” – a 19-county region from just south of Montreal to north of New York City.

The University at Albany opened the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, now ranked the top college for nanotechnology and microtechnology in America, at the state-of-the-art Albany NanoTech complex.

Within a few years, lured by investment incentives and the breakthrough research being conducted at the college, major employers such as IBM, International SEMATECH, General Electric, Tokyo Electron and Applied Materials had invested billions in the area and we’re creating thousands of jobs.

But luring these companies to Tech Valley was one thing – keeping them there was another. New York State United Teachers, an NEA affiliate representing more than 600,000 education and health care professionals in New York, began partnering with business leaders and community groups to launch an ambitious initiative aimed at providing these high-tech companies with the steady supply of skilled workers they would need.

In 2007, NYSUT launched the SEMI High Tech U Program for Teachers, with assistance from nano industry leaders such as the Air Products Foundation, General Electric, the SEMI Foundation and the Workforce Consortium for Emerging Technologies. The summer workshop pairs business leaders with educators from throughout Upstate New York, with the goal of showing teachers how they can best prepare their students for high-tech careers in math and science.

“I’ve been teaching for 16 years, and this is by far the best professional development I’ve ever been part of,” Mark Karcher, a math teacher from Shaker High School in Latham, NY, said while describing the program as part of a panel during March’s Celebration of Teaching & Learning in New York City. “I came home and there was still a month left before school. I couldn’t wait. I was fired up.”

Karcher’s enthusiasm was contagious, and he was even able to lead a re-write of math curriculum at Shaker to integrate more real-world lessons from the nano-tech market.

Karcher is just one of hundreds of teachers from dozens of school districts who have been trained at NYSUT headquarters since the program began. Teachers receive tours of local plants, get tutorials on the nano-tech businesses from corporate leaders, and develop high-tech lesson plans integrated with state standards. Karcher has used logic tables and a “human calculator” game to not only teach his students math, but also to show them how circuitry functions on microchips.

The skills his students learn are going to keep them employable and will allow them to stay and build their futures in Upstate New York, Karcher says. These are the same students who, a decade ago, may have needed to leave the area to pursue employment. But the nano-tech industry offers employment opportunities at every education level.

“What I love about this program is that there are going to be jobs for both my honors kids and my non-honors kids,” Karcher said.

“SEMI High Tech U is an opportunity to prepare New York’s students for careers in math and science,” said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neia, “providing for a well-educated, globally competitive work force that industry will need to thrive.”

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