Ethnic Gem: Karen Amaker

Ethnic Gem: Karen Amaker

Title: Director, Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA)
State: Norwalk, CT


Written by: Doron Monk Flake, Senior Writer


Imagine for a moment going to High School and graduating with a College Degree for FREE!! How is that possible you may ask? Ethnic Online is proud to share with you this absolutely amazing story taking place at Norwalk High School under the direction and leadership of Ms. Karen Amaker, Director, Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA) and the housemaster of Norwalk High School.



June 2017 Pic of Karen AmakerBy partnering with IBM and Norwalk Community College, 320 students will have access to the kind of face-forward learning opportunities that will make them immediately competitive in the job or academic market. Her program introduces the idea of a grade 9-14 school that graduates each student with a high school diploma as well as an associate’s degree in technology (Mobile Programming or Software Engineering). Do I foresee the next STEM professional being groomed at NECA?



Finding a job is hard work. Positions are scarce and as a result, employers can make applicants jump through hoops. They stipulate years of experience, minimum education requirements and shut young inner city adults out of anything above entry level. Karen Amaker is making this a reality for students in Norwalk



“IBM provides mentors for each student.” Amaker said. “A program manager from IBM works closely with our staff on site. We have juniors working in paid six week internships once they take some college courses and complete three years of workplace readiness coursework. They have to interview for the position.” Four years ago, Norwalk Community College and Norwalk public schools met with IBM to start the program. State funding ended after the first year, but the city of Norwalk and NCC now fund the college degrees for every student. “We went from a $16,000 budget our first year to a $1.3 million budget.” Amaker said. “While we’re still a school within a school, the goal is for NECA to be a standalone facility.” NECA reflects the cultural diaspora of Norwalk, with about 46% female students focused on STEM careers. The upshot of x chromosomes is sorely needed. “We’re diversifying the field.” Amaker said.



Maryann Quermorllue, NECA Math Teacher



The grade 9-14 model is an outgrowth of former NY education chancellor Stan Litow’s vision. When he left education and joined the ranks of IBM, he noticed a broad skills and learning gap. The original 9-14 school, PTECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High) opened in Brooklyn in 2011. Since its inception, PTECH has graduated over 100 students; 54 earned a college degree in less than six year. NECA and other new PTECH model schools seek to patch the gulf between what the average high school student needs and what the traditional classroom will actually provide them. “Schools are opening in Morocco, London and Australia” said Amaker. “It really is a movement.”



Tuition for NECA is free and enrollment is open. Admission is on a lottery basis. 



NECA provides great support for the students to ensure when they finish, they’ve not only earned their degree, but are prepared to function on the job. “We have a summer college program. We have 75 students in 9-11 grade taking courses at Norwalk Community College.” said Amaker. “50% of our students consistently earn honors. 10-12 students are on track to graduate with their HS and college degree in our first graduating class in June 2018.”



Karen Amaker, a New Haven native, earned degrees from Gateway Community College, Wesleyan University, Southern Connecticut State University, and Sacred Heart University. “I fell into the field of education after my best friend introduced me to a national education nonprofit, formerly known as SummerBridge.” she said. “SummerBridge, housed at Hopkins School, was a private/public school partnership that provided mentoring and tutoring to New Haven Public middle school students.”



Her love of empowering the engineers and creators of tomorrow is evident. “People like to throw around words like ‘education reform’ but this is real reform,” Amaker said. “This is transformative. We’re changing lives. The hope is always that the state of Connecticut will recognize what we’re doing here and invest. We have 50% of kids on the honor roll. What about the other half?”



Maryann Quermorllue, NECA Math Teacher



When you see Karen Amaker out and about, please be sure to thank her for her passion, dedication and leadership in developing well rounded qualified educated students in becoming our next leaders!



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