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WASHINGTON – Buffalo “rose to the top” in a hypercompetitive fight for federal funding for a new school dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said Tuesday as he laid out the Obama administration’s vision for incorporating public schools into a fast-changing high-tech economy.

Asked about the grant after appearing at a forum sponsored by National Journal, the labor secretary – a Buffalo native – lauded the city’s plan to link what is now the Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute with the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to eventually give students in grades 5 through 12 a high-tech education as well as exposure to possible careers.

“Buffalo rose to the top of the application pool because they had a really good plan for helping kids at MLK to connect to the necessary core competencies that are going to enable them to punch their ticket to the middle class, to get the skills to compete for jobs that are out there today and tomorrow, and to always stay ahead of the skills curve,” Perez said.

Nearly 300 school districts entered the competition for the Youth CareerConnect grants, and Buffalo was one of 24 award winners, pulling in $3.9 million for the MLK conversion, which is set to begin this fall.

“I’m excited for Buffalo,” said Perez, who, during his appearance at the forum, said competition for the grants was especially strong.

“For every grant we awarded, there were three or four applications that were almost as worthy,” he said.

The district’s proposal for the MLK program, however, has yet to be approved by the state Education Department. Although school officials have been talking about a new Medical Campus School for a while, the original plan was for a school serving ninth- through 12th-graders. That was also the description included in the application for the Department of Labor grant that was due in January.

It was not until last month that the district switched gears and decided to convert MLK into a new STEM school serving students in grades 5 to 12. That plan is awaiting state approval.

It might seem unusual for the Department of Labor to be funding public schools, but in his presentation, Perez made clear that it’s all part of the Obama administration’s goal of revamping the workforce-training system to prepare the workers of the future.

Noting that his department is working more than ever before with the Department of Education, Perez said a better workforce-development system begins with better schools.

“Too many K-through-12 schools are failing our students,” he said. “People get a degree, but they don’t get the underlying core competencies that are enabling them to make that transition” into an economy that requires more skilled workers.

The MLK School has been failing to meet state standards for years, but now, with the aid of the federal grant, the aim is to transform the school into something like Chicago’s Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy.

Goode Academy aims to put students on a pathway to high-demand careers by giving them early exposure to what those jobs are like.

Perez said the school is succeeding in its mission. Even though upward of 90 percent of the students are from poor families, the graduates go on to post-secondary schools ranging from two-year community colleges to Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Students at the Chicago school team with high-tech professionals from a nearby IBM facility, much like the MLK School in Buffalo would pair students with professionals at the Medical Campus.

“What they’re getting is the basic STEM skills, and then they’re getting that exposure that opens up their minds to the opportunities that are out there,” Perez said.

And as a result, students at the school are aiming high.

“You talk to these students and you ask them, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ ” Perez said. “ ‘I want to be doctor,’ ‘I want to be an engineer,’ ‘I want to be a president’ – those are three answers that I got to the question.”

A technology-heavy education is important because of the changing labor landscape, Erica L. Groshen, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said at the forum. She noted that while overall job growth was 1.5 percent between 2009 and 2013, growth in the STEM fields was 5.1 percent.

Perez, who began his talk by evoking memories of Buffalo’s industrial decline in the 1970s and ’80s, said today’s students will have to keep learning throughout their lives to adjust as the economy changes.

“You’re getting on that educational superhighway that is lifelong and has a remarkable return,” he said.

News Staff Reporter Tiffany Lankes contributed to this report. email: jzremski@buffnews.com