Granted, he took a circuitous route, but New Paltz’s Jonah Schenker is now the principal of the innovative Hudson Valley Pathways Academy — or PTech — a program he helped design for ninth-graders through their first two years of college. The six-year program will be entering its fifth year in September and has 75 original students. PTech is affiliated through Ulster BOCES Pathways to Technology, the Ulster County Council of Industry (directed by New Paltz’s Harold King) and SUNY Ulster, and is designed to close the skills and workforce gap. “It’s a triad partnership,” says Schenker, “the first time these three entities came together to try and bridge the college and career-ready gap.” The students have a curriculum of manufacturing and engineering — particularly robotics — health informatics, computers and in the energy fields. It is a BOCES program with Ulster County districts — particularly Kingston and Rondout in this case — sending students to it. It is a tuition-based program, with districts providing aid. “It’s an extension to high school programs,” says Schenker, “and in many ways an apprenticeship program, but where they will graduate with an Associate’s Degree.”
So, how did the one-time MHAL wrestling champion and MHAL 110 hurdles and pole vault champion, and noted free-spirit, come to be the guiding force behind a tech program for kids?
Schenker laughs. “It was unusual.”
After high school graduation in 1995, Schenker tried his hand at a regular education at SUNY Geneseo. That seemed constrictive, so he decided to do an independent study in photography and literature with Steve Lewis at Empire State College, which encompassed travel. Lots of travel. All over the world for two years. He got his BA from Empire in liberal arts, with an emphasis in studio art. Then, needing a job, he moved to New York and did some merchandising work for Crate and Barrel. “Then, my older brother, Sean, got a teaching fellow at the experimental South Brooklyn Community High school in Red Hook (Brooklyn), and they were looking for someone to do some curriculum work in art and science. They apparently liked my non-traditional background. I started teaching on a day-to-day basis as a sub, got my certification and stayed there for four years.”
But the Hudson Valley and home beckoned — plus Schenker had gotten married and there were family considerations — so he started a Master’s degree program at SUNY New Paltz in leadership and administration while teaching science (“It had become a passion”) at Dover High School. He also received his CAS degree from SUNY. He was then contacted by Jane Bullawah, the assistant superintendent for BOCES in instructional services, and after an interview was hired on the spot as an intern in administration. “I was an instructional specialist. A teaching coach, working on pedagogy at the alternative high school in Port Ewen. Four years later the principal retired…and here we are.”
The main thrust of PTech is a practical one, says Schenker. “It’s to get a job in our new post-industrial economy. So we give all the students the experiences to do what they can do.” Schenker is the archetypical “out-of-the-box” thinker in the realm of education, and looks at programs like PTech as “incubators, a petri-dish, for innovation. The model of delivery of the public schools needs to shift,” he adds, “it’s an industrial model that no longer works. This, the information era, is different, and requires a lot more tech savvy instruction. And it isn’t the tech aspect by itself — it’s good tech in the hands of good teachers that will unleash miracles.”
And he adds: “It’s really a container issue. The system needs growth. It needs to be more holistic.”
Dr. Schenker…I presume…will become a superintendent one of these days.
“That’s one of my goals,” he says, “I want to help kids get where they want to go.”