February 2, 2015 12:00 AM
By Jill Harkins / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Paula Heinzman, principal of Pittsburgh Schiller 6-8, insists that her teachers follow one guiding principle.
“Every child can learn,” she said. “It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another thing to believe it.”
Ron Sofo, CEO & principal at the City Charter High School, Downtown, looks at a list of past graduating students. The school was one of those in Allegheny County recognized for high achievement.
Ms. Heinzman proved last week that she doesn’t just believe it; she can achieve it. Schiller, where 90 percent of students receive lunch at a free or reduced price, has been recognized by the state Department of Education as one of 97 Distinguished Title I schools in the state for increasing its percentage of proficient students by 16 points in reading and 10.8 points in math between the 2012-13 and the 2013-14 school years.
These schools are recognized for placing in the top 5 percent of Pennsylvania’s Title I schools — indicating a large percentage of low-income students — for either achievement or school growth in state test scores. They also must maintain high attendance, graduation rates and test participation rates.
Title I funding is distributed to schools based on their percentage of low-income students — largely determined by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunches — relative to the wealth of the school district. Pennsylvania has 1,772 Title I schools.
Thirteen of the 97 recognized schools are in Allegheny County, including five of Pittsburgh’s public schools: Sunnyside PreK-8, 85 percent low-income; Sterrett 6-8, 77 percent; Beechwood PreK-5, 75 percent; Allderdice High School, 52 percent; and Schiller.
City Charter High School in Downtown, with 67 percent low-income students, was recognized as well.
Allderdice and City Charter high schools were recognized for high achievement. The others were recognized for high progress.
In the rest of Allegheny County, the schools that were recognized are Elroy Avenue Elementary School in Brentwood Borough School District, 57 percent low-income; Homeville Elementary School in West Mifflin School District, 54 percent; Myrtle Elementary School in Keystone Oaks School District, 50 percent; Hyde Elementary School in Moon Area School District, 49 percent; Whitehall Elementary School in Baldwin-Whitehall School District, 28 percent; Hampton High School in Hampton Township School District, 9 percent; and Richland Elementary School in Pine-Richland School District, 8 percent.
Homeville Elementary was recognized for high progress. The others were recognized for high achievement.
Although these schools take a variety of approaches to bolstering achievement, building personal relationships with students and giving students individualized attention appear to be key.
At Whitehall Elementary, principal Jennifer Marstellar holds monthly meetings at which staff discuss the progress of every student.
At City High, teachers follow students through all four grades so that they have the same science, English and math teachers through their entire time at the school, a technique called looping.
Jennifer Solak, the Title I reading specialist at City High, said this allows teachers to see each student as a “whole person.”
“When a kid trusts you and is comfortable with you, you can push them to the next level. That’s how we get kids across the stage at graduation,” said Angela Welch, education manager for City High.
In addition, Ms. Solak’s flexible schedule — she doesn’t teach any of her own classes — allows her to give personalized attention to students and teachers.
Amy Burch, superintendent of Brentwood and former principal of Elroy Avenue Elementary, said that her school also concentrates on factors outside of curriculum to bolster achievement. “If you don’t have the behavior under control, you’re not going to have academic achievement,” she said.
A committee at Elroy devised a plan to publicly recognize students who displayed outstanding behavior, and other students quickly replicated them. Absenteeism and discipline referrals decreased almost immediately.
From there, they began targeting students as young as kindergarten for personalized instruction and had to then upgrade the first-grade curriculum to match their high ability.
At Homeville Elementary, students are divided into groups of eight to 10 corresponding to specific reading needs and meet for 30 minutes daily, called “Tier Time,” to work specifically in that area. Whitehall and Elroy reported similar intervention programs.
At Schiller, Ms. Heinzman, counselor Lisa Owens and the school’s instructional leader teachers lead Professional Learning Communities similar to Homeville’s Tier Time, but for teachers. Topics range from equity to data-driven instruction.
Central to all of these techniques is instilling in students the belief that they can prosper socially in addition to academically. According to Ms. Owens, “Optimism can be taught.”
Jill Harkins: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3772