Allegheny County

Opportunity Schools

A celebration of public schools that are beating the odds and an in-depth look at what we can learn from them
A PENNCAN RESEARCH REPORT
This report was made possible by a generous donation from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.
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  • Opportunity
    Elementary
    School
  • Opportunity
    Middle
    School
  • Opportunity
    High
    School

Preface

Preface

The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough. But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action.

We are a better country than this.

President Barack Obama
December 4, 2013

As a public school teacher in a high poverty school in Philadelphia, a typical day was an emotional rollercoaster. My students would inspire me with their wit and intelligence, yet I’d return home feeling powerless because of my inability to truly meet their needs. My colleagues would inspire me with their relentlessness and determination, but we’d collectively feel enraged by the system’s propensity to leave many children behind.

The fine line between inspiration and anger, hope and outrage, is reflected in the report you are about to read.

In this report, we analyzed data from all 102 high poverty schools in Allegheny County and identified those schools that are consistently breaking the link between poverty and achievement and providing all students, regardless of background, the opportunity to thrive.

Fittingly, we call these schools “Opportunity Schools.”

As you read this report, you won’t feel defeated. You’ll feel hopeful. Our thesis statement is simple: Allegheny County has schools that are high poverty AND high-performing.

In fact, there are six. And there are another 15 schools that are almost there. These great schools deserve both acknowledgement and analysis. Our report provides both.

At cocktail parties and family gatherings, I often struggle to answer a very basic question, “What do you do?” My typical answer is, “I’m the executive director of a non-profit that weaves research, communications, and lobbying to support policies that ensure all children have access to the quality education they deserve.” But the simpler, more honest answer is, “I’m trying to change the conversation.”

With this report, I hope to change the conversation in Allegheny County from “Can poor kids be expected to achieve at extraordinary levels?” to “What can we do to replicate the success of these Opportunity Schools to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education?”

Jonathan Cetel

Jonathan Cetel
Executive Director, PennCAN

Opportunity School Report
Preface

Introduction

Introduction

In our country, there is no greater predictor of academic achievement and attainment than a student’s socioeconomic status. This is not a new phenomenon. Decades of research substantiate the large and intractable achievement gap between children from low-income households and their peers from higher-income families. What is noteworthy, however, is that our income achievement gap has grown significantly over the last few decades. Education inequality has gotten worse, not better.1

Meanwhile, jobs in the United States increasingly require higher levels of education. Gone are the days when a high school diploma guaranteed a job at the mills and a chance at a middle class life. Since the recession began in 2007, the number of jobs requiring a college degree in the United States has risen by 2.2 million, whereas the number of jobs for high-school graduates has fallen by 5.8 million.2

This trend toward more jobs requiring some kind of postsecondary education is projected to continue. By 2020, workers with postsecondary education will hold 65 percent of the jobs compared to only 59 percent of jobs in 2010.3 Moreover, the jobs that do exist for less-educated workers pay significantly less than they used to.4

Thus, at the same time that family income has become more predictive of academic achievement, academic attainment has become increasingly essential to economic success. Rather than being the great equalizer, our education system is helping perpetuate a vicious cycle that is creating more income disparity and a more unequal society.

Like the nation as a whole, Allegheny County has a significant income achievement gap–students from wealthier school districts are thriving academically while students from poorer school districts are lagging far behind. One of the major barriers to ensuring strong educational outcomes for these students is a lack of access to high-quality schools that effectively serve low-income students.

However, there is hope. In Allegheny County, there are a handful of schools proving that poverty is not destiny. In this report we celebrate six extraordinary high poverty schools that are consistently breaking the link between poverty and low student achievement. We call them Opportunity Schools because they are providing all children, regardless of socio-economic status, the opportunity to excel academically. We also identified 15 additional On-the-Cusp Schools, which fell just short of the criteria to be considered Opportunity Schools.

The purpose of this report is:

  1. To celebrate the teachers and school leaders who have helped create these Opportunity Schools. These people are warriors for children. They work tirelessly to ensure that all children are achieving at the highest levels. Every day these principals and teachers experience the enormous challenges of working in a high poverty school, but at their core, they believe poverty and race are not overwhelming barriers to academic success.
  2. To learn from these Opportunity Schools. This report examines the foundational characteristics and key best practices that these schools have in common.
  3. To drive forward a much-needed conversation. Our hope is to determine how we can ensure that all children in Allegheny County have access to an “Opportunity School” and receive the education that will lead them to success in college and career. We want this report to build a sense of urgency and inspire various stakeholders to support the replication and growth of these beating-the-odds schools.

We need to fundamentally reimagine how our public school system serves low-income children. While other anti-poverty efforts need to be integrated with education efforts, providing high-quality education is absolutely essential to breaking the cycle of poverty for children born into low-income households. If we are committed to preparing all children for the challenges of the 21st century economy and giving them a fair chance at a successful life, we must work together and find the will to make every school in Allegheny County an Opportunity School.

Reardon, Sean F., “Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances,” New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011. Print. http://cepa.stanford.edu/content/widening-academic-achievement-gap-between-rich-and-poor-new-evidence-and-possible. “College Graduates Lead National Job Growth Recovery, New Georgetown Study Finds,” Lumina Foundation, Washington: Center on Education and the Workforce, 2012. Print. https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/3.16.15_College-Advantage-Press-Release1.pdf. Carnevale, Anthony P., Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020,” Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.ES_.Web_.pdf. Irwin, Neil, "Why American Workers Without Much Education Are Being Hammered," The New York Times, April 21, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/22/upshot/why-workers-without-much-education-are-being-hammered.html.
Opportunity School Report
Introduction

The opportunity gap: An in-depth look at Allegheny County’s high poverty school districts

The opportunity gap: An in-depth look at Allegheny County’s high poverty school districts

Where a family can afford to live should not determine the quality of education afforded to their children. However, that is the reality for most of Allegheny County’s poorest families. Out of 43 school districts in Allegheny County, there are 11 high poverty districts5 educating almost 45,000 children. Not surprisingly, these 11 districts are the worst performing districts in the county, and in some cases, among the worst performing districts in the entire state. Out of 496 Pennsylvania school districts rated in a 2013 study, 10 of Allegheny County’s high poverty school districts performed in the bottom 10 percent of the state, and four of those districts performed in the bottom two percent of the state.6 In the aggregate, only 56 percent of all students in these 11 high poverty districts are proficient in math and only 51 percent of all students are proficient in reading. The proficiency rates for just economically disadvantaged students are predictably even lower—only 50 percent of low-income students in these 11 high poverty districts are proficient in math and only 45 percent are proficient in reading. In fact, the proficiency rates in these 11 districts are lower than proficiency rates for economically disadvantaged students for the state as a whole–six percentage points lower in math and nine percentage points lower in reading.

The results in these 11 high poverty districts are even bleaker when you look only at race. Of the nearly 24,000 black students (most of whom also fall into the low-income category based on the demographics of the districts), only 44 percent are proficient in math and just 40 percent are proficient in reading. Again, these proficiency rates are lower than proficiency rates for black students for the state as a whole.

Meanwhile, in Allegheny County’s higher-income districts,7 the educational outcomes of students are drastically different. In the county’s 32 higher-income districts, 84 percent of the students are proficient in math and 83 percent are proficient in reading. This is 28 and 32 percentage points higher than the 11 high poverty districts for math and reading, respectively. Out of these 32 higher-income districts, 26 outperformed the state average in both reading math.

This gross disparity in educational outcomes between poorer and wealthier districts is not simply a matter of equity; it poses a threat to this region’s economic vitality. The number of children living in poverty in the Pittsburgh region has steadily risen since 2000. Today, approximately one in six children in the region is living in poverty, up nearly six percent since 2000.8 Like the nation as a whole, Allegheny County is facing a looming shortfall of college-educated and technically trained workers.9 Thus, this region’s economy is dependent on creating a highly educated work force, which can only happen if we provide better educational opportunities for all students, not just those who live in the right zip code.

We defined a “high poverty district” in the same way we defined “high poverty schools,” namely a district in which at least 60 percent of its student population is economically disadvantaged. Refer to our Methodology section for a more detailed explanation of the definition of “high poverty.” Lott, Ethan, “USC, Mt. Lebo Top Two Scoring Districts in State,” Pittsburgh Business Times, April 5, 2013, http://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/news/2013/04/05/statedistrictrank2013.html. A “higher-income” district is any district in which less than 60 percent of its student body is economically disadvantaged. “Poverty And Income Insecurity In The Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area,” Urban Institute, http://www.urban.org/research/publication/poverty-and-income-insecurity-pittsburgh-metropolitan-area/view/full_report. Furtrell, Jim, “Opportunity in face of slowing job growth,” Pittsburgh Business Times, February 20, 2015, http://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/print-edition/2015/02/20/opportunity-in-face-of-slowing-job-growth.html?page=all.
Opportunity School Report
The opportunity gap: An in-depth look at Allegheny County’s high poverty school districts

Allegheny County’s Opportunity Schools

Allegheny County’s Opportunity Schools

In our search to identify Opportunity Schools in Allegheny County, we wanted to use a meaningful metric that would recognize those schools that are consistently proving that poverty is not a barrier to academic success. After careful consideration, we arrived at the following definition for an Opportunity School:10

  1. A high poverty11 public elementary or middle school program (district or charter) where overall student proficiency rates on the Pennsylvania System for School Assessment met or exceeded overall state proficiency rates in both math and reading in more than half of the tested grades for both 2013 and 2014; or
  2. A high poverty public high school program (district or charter) where overall student proficiency rates on the Keystone Exams met or exceeded overall state proficiency rates in both Algebra and Literature for both 2013 and 2014.

In the subsequent pages, we will feature each school and delve into the practices and approaches that are leading these schools to success.

We acknowledge that beyond student performance on standardized assessments, there are several other factors that contribute to school quality. We believe, however, that our definition identifies schools that measurably provide children from low-income households the opportunity to overcome the normal correlation between socioeconomic status and performance on standardized tests. In other words, given the statewide data that is and is not available, we believe that our definition shows which Allegheny County programs are providing children from low-income households a high-quality education. As explained more thoroughly in the Methodology section of this report, a “high poverty school” is any school that has at least 60 percent or more students who are economically disadvantaged.
Elementary School Programs Principal School District School Type
Propel East Sandra Gough and Mike Evans, Co-Principals Woodland Hills Public Charter
Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School Gail Edwards Pittsburgh Public Charter
Verner Elementary School Jason Shoaf
(Former principal)
 Riverview Traditional Public
Middle School Programs Principal School District School Type
Propel McKeesport Lauren DiMartino McKeesport Public Charter
Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy Shawn McNeil Pittsburgh Magnet
High School Programs Principal School District School Type
Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy Shawn McNeil Pittsburgh Magnet
Barack Obama Academy of International Studies Wayne Walters Pittsburgh Magnet

NOTE: We reference elementary, middle or high school “programs” instead of “elementary, middle or high schools” because, for the purposes of this report, we studied each program separately, even when multiple programs are part of the same school.

Key findings

  • In Allegheny County, there are 102 high poverty schools, of which only six met our criteria to be an Opportunity School. Put another way, out of 44,940 students attending high poverty schools, only 6 percent (or 2,662 students) are attending a school that is consistently breaking the link between poverty and low achievement.
  • Traditional public neighborhood schools are noticeably underrepresented from the list of Opportunity Schools. Of the six Opportunity Schools, three are charter schools, two are magnet schools, and one is a traditional district school. Charter schools are considerably overrepresented amongst the Opportunity Schools. Out of the 102 high poverty schools in Allegheny County, 15 are charter schools. So while charter schools only make up about 15 percent of the total number of high poverty schools, they make up 50 percent of the Opportunity Schools.
  • The only two high schools on this list—Barack Obama Academy of International Studies and the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy—are both magnet high schools that have certain criteria and weights for entry.13 The only On-the-Cusp high school is City Charter High School, an open enrollment charter school. Although City Charter High School just missed the criteria to become an Opportunity School, it is notable that its graduation rate, college/trade school matriculation rate, and Pittsburgh Promise14 eligibility rate exceed the rates at both Barack Obama Academy of International Studies and the Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy.15 It is significant that no other high poverty high school program in the city of Pittsburgh came close to meeting the criteria to be considered an Opportunity School or an On-the-Cusp School. In math, the next highest performing high poverty high school in Pittsburgh had a proficiency rate of 47 percent, 17 percentage points below the state proficiency rate.
  • The achievement gap between black and white students is still significant at several of the Opportunity Schools, however the performance of black students at these Opportunity Schools far outpaces their counterparts in their home districts and the state as a whole. For example, at Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, 68 percent of black students are proficient or advanced on the Algebra Keystone exam, which is 34 percentage points higher than black proficiency rates at the district and 33 percentage points higher than black proficiency rates for the state as a whole. However, 89 percent of white students at Obama are proficient on the Algebra Keystone exam, creating a sizeable racial achievement gap within the school. For literature, Obama’s racial achievement gap is significantly less, with 89 percent black proficiency and 100 percent white proficiency. Thus, while Obama is successfully closing the racial achievement gap when black student performance is compared to white student performance at the state and district levels, within the school there are still significant gaps that need to be addressed. A similar pattern can also be found at the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, Propel East, and Verner Elementary School.
The high school program at Obama requires a 2.5 grade point average in both seventh and eighth grades and passing a language proficiency exam. If there are more applicants than spots, a weighted lottery occurs that gives preference for those students living in the geographic region, those qualifying for free or reduced lunch, those who have siblings who attend the school, those who have a 95 percent attendance rate, and those who have no lengthy suspensions. Similarly, Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy has a weighted lottery if there are more applicants than spots. The lottery gives preference to those students who scored proficient on the state math and reading exams, those qualifying for free and reduced lunch, those having a 90 percent attendance rate, those who scored in the top 50 percent of their grade in their school on the most recent PSSA math tests, as well as those students who attended a prior school that had a science and technology-focused curriculum. The Pittsburgh Promise is a post-secondary scholarship program that provides up to $40,000 to students who attend Pittsburgh Public Schools. High school graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools are eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship if they graduate with a GPA of 2.5 or better and maintain an attendance record of 90 percent. “Report to the Community,” A+ Schools, http://www.aplusschools.org/research-and-reports/report-to-the-community.

How many kids in Allegheny County actually attend Opportunity Schools?

Opportunity School Report
Allegheny County’s Opportunity Schools

Allegheny County’s On-the-Cusp Schools

Allegheny County’s On-the-Cusp Schools

PennCAN set the bar for Opportunity Schools high enough to justify our claim that they repeatedly break the link between income and achievement. Still, many Allegheny County schools just missed the cutoff. We believe it is important to recognize these schools, learn from their success and understand from their leaders what they need to become Opportunity Schools.

We have designated the next group of schools as On-the-Cusp Schools. After careful consideration, we arrived at the following definition. An On-the-Cusp School is:

  1. A high poverty public elementary or middle school program (district or charter) where overall student proficiency rates on the Pennsylvania System for School Assessment were higher than overall state proficiency rates or were within 5 percentage points in both math and reading in more than half of the tested grades for 2013-2014; or
  2. A high poverty public high school program (district or charter) where overall student proficiency rates on the Keystone Exams were higher than overall state proficiency rates or were within 5 percentage points in both Algebra and Literature for 2013-2014.
Elementary School Programs Principal School District School Type Total Enrollment Percent Economically Disadvantaged
Carnegie Elementary School Carla Hudson Carlynton Traditional public 427 63%
Elroy Avenue Elementary School Barbara Pagan Brentwood Borough Traditional public 324 61%
Manchester Academic Charter School Vasilios Scoumis Pittsburgh Public Charter 274 81%
Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 Molly O'Malley-Argueta Pittsburgh Magnet 532 87%
Pittsburgh Beechwood K-5 Sally Rifugiato Pittsburgh Traditional public 421 75%
Pittsburgh Greenfield K-8 Eric Rosenthall Pittsburgh Traditional public 379 70%
Pittsburgh Liberty K-5 Mark McClinchie Pittsburgh Magnet 409 70%
Pittsburgh Linden K-5 Victoria Burgess Pittsburgh Magnet 384 71%
Pittsburgh Phillips K-5 Kevin L Bivins Pittsburgh Partial Magnet 302 66%
Propel Montour Matt Strine and Jamie Chlystek Montour Public charter 404 66%
Woodland Hills Academy Kelly Berthold Woodland Hills Traditional public 483 61%
Middle School Programs Principal School District School Type Total Enrollment Percent Economically Disadvantaged
Highlands MS Charles Mort Highlands Traditional public 551 64%
Propel Montour Matt Strine and Jamie Chlystek Montour Public charter 404 66%
Pittsburgh Brookline K-8 John Vater Pittsburgh Traditional public 609 67%
Pittsburgh Carmalt K-8 Sandra Och Pittsburgh Magnet 598 76%
High School Programs Principal School District School Type Total Enrollment Percent Economically Disadvantaged
City Charter High School Ron Sofo Pittsburgh Public charter 643 69%

How many kids in Allegheny County actually attend On-the-Cusp Schools?

Opportunity School Report
Allegheny County’s On-the-Cusp Schools

Key characteristics of poverty-defying schools

Key characteristics of poverty-defying schools

After identifying the Opportunity and On-the-Cusp Schools, PennCAN reached out to the principals of each school and visited each Opportunity School. We asked them about the in-school best practices they use to lead their students to success. After culling through the responses, we have identified five of the key characteristics that define these poverty-defying schools.

Strong leadership.

Great schools start with great leaders. It is a necessary but not sufficient component of success. Like a great sports coach, a leader sets a vision and recruits, develops, and retains a talented team to execute that vision. At Propel, co-principal Sandy Gough humbly attributed her school’s success to Propel’s hardworking and dedicated teachers, but she acknowledged the critical role she played in recruiting those teachers.

Principals used to be the chief administrator of a school, ensuring that textbooks were purchased, buses ran on time, and discipline was handed out swiftly and fairly. In a departure from this model, the Opportunity School leaders saw themselves as instructional leaders, primarily responsible for coaching teachers to constantly improve their practice. At Obama, it means that the principal, Dr. Wayne Walters, built the curricular framework and school model and is responsible for making sure his staff is prepared to teach the school’s rigorous International Baccalaureate program. At Propel McKeesport, it means Principal Lauren DiMartino is constantly in the classroom, doing at least five teacher observations each week and providing constant feedback to teachers. At Verner Elementary School, teachers are accustomed to the principal coming into their classrooms every day. At Propel East, the principal sits in on every meeting to discuss a student’s Individualized Education Plan to ensure that teachers are providing the services the child needs. At ULGPCS, it means that the principal, who has been there for 14 years, knows every student and all of their family members.

There is a myth that great principals are like military generals: fierce, humorless, and authoritative. In our interviews with the Opportunity School principals, we observed very different personalities. Some were stern and demanding, others were nurturing and collaborative. But what they all shared was a strong vision and an unapologetic relentlessness to get results.

Establish high expectations and high academic standards.

By definition, all six Opportunity Schools had a student population that was at least 60 percent economically disadvantaged. Every school described the immense challenges their students face, but they all had asset-based perspectives on their work. Leaders continuously emphasized what their students were capable of instead of describing the deficits. They all had the same bold attitude that was imbued throughout the schools’ cultures: that every single student could and would learn.

In the Riverview school district, there are two elementary schools–Opportunity School Verner Elementary School and a much more affluent school. Yet the administration scoffed when asked if the students are treated differently at the two schools. “We don’t change the rules of the game–same curriculum, same expectations.” At Verner Elementary School, every student has his or her own education plan called the Riverview Customized Education Plan, something that is usually only provided to gifted students or students with disabilities. The expectation is that every student will meet personal growth goals, and the school feels they have a “moral obligation” for meeting that goal.

At Obama, the rigorous IB curriculum is incredibly challenging. Kids often complain to the principal that they would have a higher GPA if they attended their neighborhood school. Yet, many of those same students return to Obama with the message for current students that college is much easier than they expected thanks to the demanding workload they faced in high school.

The flexibility and autonomy to adapt to student needs.

To be innovative and adaptable to the needs of students, schools need flexibility. The original promise of charter schools was to provide more autonomy in exchange for more accountability. In fact, the earliest pioneers of the charter movement were teachers unions in New York City who wanted freedom from the red tape of the NYC Department of Education. Specifically, charter schools have autonomy over their budget, curriculum, and personnel. This means that ULGPCS can increase the length of their school year from 180 days 210 days; Propel Schools can build innovative partnerships, like the Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps, to increase the diversity of its workforce and have content-specific teaching coaches at every school; and City Charter High School, an On-the-Cusp School, can loop students with the same team of teachers for all four years of high school, creatively allocate resources to hire 11 teaching associates to support all faculty in differentiating instruction, and have a competency-based promotion system for all faculty.

It is widely known that charter schools have these freedoms. What is less widely known is that Pittsburgh Public Schools has afforded some important freedoms to its magnet schools. SciTech, for instance, is afforded a special provision in the collective bargaining agreement to exempt its teachers from seniority-based layoffs. As a new school with bold and innovative plans, the school aggressively recruited content experts and career changers with advanced degrees. Knowing that continuity is key to success and that new teachers are vulnerable to layoffs, the school feared that a traditional contract threatened their model. The school district successfully negotiated a carve-out from the seniority system that governs other Pittsburgh public schools in order to ensure the quality of its teaching staff.

If we are serious about building more Opportunity Schools, we must give ALL schools–not just charter and magnet schools–the ability to be exempt from mandates and work-rules. In one of our interviews with an On-the-Cusp School, a principal cited burdensome work rules in the teacher contract as a key factor holding schools back from serving students well.

Use data to differentiate instruction.

Without exception, every principal cited “data-driven instruction” as a source of the schools’ successes. This has become something of a buzzword in education, but data is simply a string of numbers if it is not used to constantly monitor and inform instruction.

Here’s an overview of how Propel Mckeesport uses data: At the beginning of the year, the leadership team meets with teachers and sets data targets that include PSSA scores, benchmark assessments, attendance, and discipline referrals. Those targets are posted throughout the school and referred to throughout the year. The leadership team has data meetings twice a trimester to assess progress made towards these goals. At the classroom level, teachers use formative data to create instructional groups on the spot. For example, in 3rd and 4th grades, students will have a mini-lesson on a certain skill. Students will then do a problem-of-the-day, based on the skill taught. The teachers will then quickly group students based on their success on that particular problem. In 5th and 6th grades, the math teacher gives students weekly assessments aligned with state standards, and the data that is collected from these weekly tests determines the focus of the math centers for the week.

Build strong relationships with students and families.

Even though all of the Opportunity Schools are relentlessly focused on academic outputs, none view their core missions as getting students to be proficient on exams. Rather their priority is to maximize the potential of each student by building meaningful, authentic relationships with students and families. At SciTech, that means a daily period devoted to enrichment activities of mutual interest to students and teachers, where students can develop relationships with teachers outside of a strictly academic setting. At Propel East, it means creating a culture where parents and students feel comfortable calling teachers on evenings and weekends to ask questions. Unsurprisingly, Propel East has nearly a 100 percent participation rate in parent/teacher conferences. At ULGPCS, teachers do home visits in the fall. At Obama, the school hosts special events to increase parent engagement. At Verner, when asked how to describe their school culture, they said it is “a family where kids come first.”

The bottom line is that these schools get amazing test scores because of and not at the expense of meaningful relationships and engagement with students and parents. These schools understand that strong relationships help them to effectively identify and meet the needs of students. In what sounds paradoxical, but makes complete sense to educators, these schools have great test scores because they focus on so much more than just test scores.

Opportunity School Report
Key characteristics of poverty-defying schools

Conclusion

Conclusion

The public education system in Allegheny County is plagued by an income and racial achievement gap that undermines the region’s economic competitiveness and robs students of the most precious feature of our democratic ideals: opportunity. The schools celebrated in this report provide proof that zip code does not have to equal destiny. They highlight that great schools operating under the right conditions can overcome the deleterious impacts of poverty. In other words, these schools give students an opportunity.

The six Opportunity Schools and 15 On-the-Cusp Schools should elicit praise for the heroic work they are doing and outrage for how few of them there are. In Allegheny County, there are 102 high poverty schools. A student in a high poverty school has only a 1 in 17 chance of attending an Opportunity School. There are no open enrollment public high schools that met the criteria for an Opportunity School, and only one open enrollment high school, City Charter High School, met the criteria to be named an On-the-Cusp School. Of the 11 high poverty districts, only four districts had at least one Opportunity School.

Given the data presented throughout this report, it is impossible to deny the importance of learning from the schools that are beating the odds. This is why PennCAN recommends learning from the five features that all of these distinguished schools share: a great leader, high standards and high expectations, autonomy, data-driven instruction, and deep relationships with students and families.

We are hopeful for a day when all schools share these attributes and “Opportunity Schools” are the norm and not the exception. But we aren’t naïve enough to believe that this will happen just by hoping. We need concerned citizens and stakeholders to take action and demand change. We know that creating poverty-defying schools is possible; we just need the collective will to make it happen.

Opportunity School Report
Conclusion

Appendices

Appendices

A. Methodology

Defining Opportunity Schools

Throughout this report, we have emphasized our goal of celebrating Allegheny County schools that are repeatedly breaking the link between income and achievement by leading students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve at high levels. We recognize, however, that it is possible to define “repeatedly breaking the link” and “achieve at high levels” in a number of ways.

In settling on a definition, we sought to offer an intuitive set of criteria and to set the bar high enough that we feel comfortable claiming any schools that meet our criteria are truly defying the odds for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Our criteria meet these objectives.

A school was named an Opportunity School if it met the following criteria:

  • A high poverty public elementary or middle school program (district or charter) where overall student proficiency rates on the Pennsylvania System for School Assessment met or exceeded overall state proficiency rates in both math and reading in more than half of the tested grades for both 2013 and 2014; or
  • A high poverty public high school program (district or charter) where overall student proficiency rates on the Keystone Exams met or exceeded overall state proficiency rates in both Algebra and Literature for both 2013 and 2014.

A school was named an On-the-Cusp School if it met the following criteria:

  • A high poverty public elementary or middle school program (district or charter) where overall student proficiency rates on the Pennsylvania System for School Assessment were higher than overall state proficiency rates or were within 5 percentage points in both math and reading in more than half of the tested grades for 2013–2014; or
  • A high poverty public high school program (district or charter) where overall student proficiency rates on the Keystone Exams

For the purposes of this report, we started from the federal definition of high poverty schools found in No Child Left Behind. According to the legislation, high poverty schools are those in the top poverty quartile in the state.16 In Pennsylvania, this includes all schools with approximately 61 percent or more economically disadvantaged students. Using this definition as a starting point, and for ease of reporting and clarity, we ultimately considered any school with 60 percent or more economically disadvantaged students to meet the high poverty criteria.

In Pennsylvania, the overall state proficiency rates are high, but not insurmountable. In addition, requiring that schools meet this threshold in over half of tested grades and in both core subjects ensures that students are consistently receiving a high-quality education. Finally, requiring schools to replicate success over multiple years suggests that their success is not just a function of statistical noise or one particularly motivated or high-skilled cohort of students.

In this report, we also made a decision to treat combined elementary/middle schools as two separate schools (K-5 and 6-8) and combined middle/high schools as two separate schools (6-8 and 9-12). This decision ensured that each school received an equal opportunity to meet the criteria and that we were comparing similar data.

Data sources

Proficiency rates were taken from the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 Required Federal Reporting Measures.17 Data in these reports was also utilized to calculate the performance of students who are not economically disadvantaged, and the income and race proficiency gaps. Demographic data, attendance rates and graduation rates were taken from the 2013-2014 Pennsylvania School Performance Profiles.18 School safety data came from the 2013-2014 Safe Schools Reports.19 Student stability rates came from the 2014 A+ Schools Report to the Community0 as well as survey responses from the Opportunity Schools. Per-pupil spending data for individual school districts came from 2012-2013 summary level Expenditure Data published by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.0 Finally, college matriculation rates were found in the 2012-2013 Graduates Public by School report.20

B. Allegheny county district level achievement data

 Total Enrollment % ED Students Scoring Proficient or Advanced
Math
 Students Scoring Proficient or Advanced
Reading
Duquesne City 366 100% 20% 19%
Clairton City 785 90% 46% 41%
Sto-Rox 1419 85% 34% 33%
Pittsburgh 26041 77% 59% 54%
Woodland Hills 3846 77% 54% 51%
Wilkinsburg Borough 932 76% 35% 27%
McKeesport Area 3507 69% 50% 46%
East Allegheny 1692 68% 58% 54%
Cornell 646 65% 59% 59%
Steel Valley 1647 64% 57% 55%
Penn Hills 3908 60% 55% 54%
Highlands 2500 59% 68% 64%
South Allegheny 1572 55% 63% 64%
Brentwood 1181 53% 76% 78%
Carlynton 1429 50% 78% 72%
West Mifflin 2996 50% 68% 67%
Northgate 1228 49% 70% 70%
Allegheny Valley 991 42% 71% 74%
Riverview 1031 40% 81% 81%
Gateway 3498 37% 71% 73%
Elizabeth Forward 2355 35% 82% 78%
Shaler 4629 35% 78% 77%
Baldwin-Whitehall 4117 34% 84% 80%
Keystone Oaks 1987 31% 82% 78%
North Hills 4248 28% 86% 85%
Chartiers 3370 26% 80% 77%
Deer Lakes 2008 26% 77% 74%
Plum 3975 23% 83% 83%
South Park 1968 22% 82% 79%
Montour 2802 21% 86% 86%
West Allegheny 3258 19% 85% 84%
Fox Chapel 4245 18% 88% 87%
West Jefferson 2831 17% 87% 88%
Moon 3723 16% 87% 86%
Avonsworth 1541 14% 81% 86%
Quaker Valley 1960 14% 87% 86%
Bethel Park 4452 12% 88% 85%
South Fayette 2793 12% 95% 93%
Hampton 3027 11% 92% 91%
Mt. Lebanon 5244 9% 92% 92%
Pine-Richland 4621 7% 90% 89%
Upper St. Clair 4133 7% 90% 90%
North Allegheny 8281 6% 89% 89%

NOTE: Districts sorted by percentage of economically disadvantaged students.

C. Proficiency data for On-the-Cusp Schools

 Grade:
Elementary
Carnegie El SchElroy Avenue El SchManchester Academic CSPittsburgh Allegheny K-5Pittsburgh Beechwood K-5Pittsburgh Greenfield K-8Pittsburgh Liberty K-5Pittsburgh Linden K-5Pittsburgh Phillips K-5Propel MontourWoodland Hills Academy
Demographics
%
 Economically Disadvantaged 63 61 81 87 75 70 70 71 66 66 61
 Black 17 6 96 70 16 23 70 65 33 33 53
 White 68 87 2 18 49 55 16 26 54 57 41
Total Percentage of Students
Proficient or Advanced
3rd Grade
Math
 All Students 78 80 58 88 78 58 88 64 82 72 78
 Economically Disadvantaged 68 79 55 86 77 53 80 59 76 62 70
 Black 73 NA 58 85 NA NA 80 50 62 53 69
 White 80 83 NA 94 89 50 100 100 89 84 92
3rd Grade
Reading
 All Students 69 72 60 65 72 75 68 52 78 72 69
 Economically Disadvantaged 55 66 55 63 74 76 57 41 70 66 57
 Black 55 NA 60 57 NA NA 54 38 69 53 59
 White 74 71 NA 82 74 75 93 92 75 84 84
4th Grade
Math
 All Students 85 82 88 85 81 80 74 77 80 71 61
 Economically Disadvantaged 82 73 89 83 81 82 68 60 64 64 57
 Black NA NA 91 82 NA NA 67 67 53 80 71
 White 92 79 NA 93 90 83 NA 100 100 72 42
4th Grade
Reading
 All Students 70 76 71 71 65 72 66 66 66 82 61
 Economically Disadvantaged 68 65 72 68 67 73 58 43 54 76 50
 Black NA NA 68 64 NA NA 57 52 42 80 67
 White 75 79 NA 93 80 82 NA 100 86 84 50
5th Grade
Math
 All Students 82 71 67 62 52 72 76 67 68 67 78
 Economically Disadvantaged 73 69 67 59 42 67 62 52 63 50 69
 Black NA NA 63 58 36 NA 65 48 67 33 70
 White 96 73 NA 60 66 92 NA 93 71 76 82
5th Grade
Reading
 All Students 62 73 58 53 43 55 59 58 56 65 57
 Economically Disadvantaged 52 69 61 48 36 43 38 34 48 50 42
 Black NA NA 53 53 36 NA 44 34 42 42 50
 White 70 73 NA 50 56 75 NA 93 63 72 68
 Grade:
Middle
Highlands MSPropel MontourPittsburgh Brookline K-8Pittsburgh Carmalt K-8
Demographics
%
 Economically Disadvantaged 64 66 67 76
 Black 9 33 10 43
 White 86 57 79 43
Total Percentage of Students
Proficient or Advanced
6th Grade
Math
 All Students 70 72 67 62
 Economically Disadvantaged 63 67 64 59
 Black 50 NA NA 47
 White 74 78 67 71
6th Grade
Reading
 All Students 61 70 53 62
 Economically Disadvantaged 51 63 50 59
 Black 36 NA NA 53
 White 65 75 52 71
7th Grade
Math
 All Students 75 78 77 72
 Economically Disadvantaged 72 77 77 69
 Black 80 67 NA 71
 White 75 90 83 72
7th Grade
Reading
 All Students 61 73 68 74
 Economically Disadvantaged 57 70 60 66
 Black 70 67 NA 81
 White 61 86 71 67
8th Grade
Math
 All Students 74 75 81 70
 Economically Disadvantaged 65 68 83 64
 Black 75 53 NA 64
 White 74 87 88 80
8th Grade
Reading
 All Students 74 77 74 87
 Economically Disadvantaged 64 71 74 85
 Black 56 65 NA 86
 White 76 83 76 87
 Grade:
High
City Charter High School
Demographics
%
 Economically Disadvantaged 69
 Black 53
 White 36
Total Percentage of Students
Proficient or Advanced
11th Grade
Math
 All Students 66
 Economically Disadvantaged 62
 Black 57
 White 81
11th Grade
Reading
 All Students 72
 Economically Disadvantaged 68
 Black 67
 White 79

D. Per-pupil spending for school districts in Allegheny County

School District Total Exp per ADM
Upper Saint Clair $23,866.73
Quaker Valley $21,171.91
West Mifflin Area $20,760.64
Pittsburgh $20,594.82
Wilkinsburg Borough $19,049.39
Montour $18,952.11
Duquesne City $18,820.95
Fox Chapel Area $18,308.08
Riverview $17,861.73
Allegheny Valley $17,491.73
Cornell $17,285.91
Gateway $16,757.35
Keystone Oaks $16,672.38
Penn Hills $16,549.45
Moon Area $16,104.98
Carlynton $15,719.20
North Hills $15,525.33
Deer Lakes $15,504.70
Northgate $15,463.42
Brentwood Borough $15,377.45
North Allegheny $15,306.81
West Allegheny $15,236.38
Chartiers Valley $15,157.66
Woodland Hills $15,039.65
School District Total Exp per ADM
Mt Lebanon $14,975.49
Clairton City $14,954.43
Avonworth $14,925.12
Shaler Area $14,793.91
Bethel Park $14,695.15
East Allegheny $14,657.82
Elizabeth Forward $14,613.58
McKeesport Area $14,486.54
Hampton Township $13,744.03
Baldwin-Whitehall $13,621.97
Pine-Richland $13,614.90
Plum Borough $13,593.39
South Fayette Township $13,589.91
Steel Valley $13,396.16
South Park $13,304.42
West Jefferson Hills $13,211.83
Highlands $13,045.22
Sto-Rox $12,738.16
South Allegheny $11,695.51

Note: The 11 highlighted districts are high poverty school districts in Allegheny County.
Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

“Definitions,” ED Data Express, Department of Education, http://eddataexpress.ed.gov/definitions.cfm. See also, http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg2.html. “Required Federal Reporting Measures,” Pennsylvania Department of Education, http://www.eseafedreport.com/. “Pennsylvania School Performance Profile,” Pennsylvania Department of Education, http://paschoolperformance.org/. “School Safety Reports,” Pennsylvania Department of Education, https://www.safeschools.state.pa.us. "2014 Report to the Community," A+Schools, http://www.aplusschools.org/research-and-reports/report-to-the-community. “Expenditure Data for School Districts, Career and Technology Centers, and Charter Schools,” Pennsylvania Department of Education, http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/summaries_of_afr_data/7673/afr_data__summary-level/509047. “Graduate Data and Statistics,” Pennsylvania Department of Education, http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/graduates/7426.
Opportunity School Report
Appendices

Propel East

Elementary Program

For the co-principal at Propel East, the most important part of her job is hiring and training the best teachers. As she explained, many teacher candidates have the necessary tools be competent teachers, but she is looking for something more—she is looking for that “Propel person.” By this she means educators who are committed to “rigor, relevance, and relationships.” Because Propel East believes that strong teacher-student relationships are critical to academic success, they only want teachers who are willing and able to form strong bonds with students. The principal’s other hiring requirement is a strong work ethic. She knows that teaching at Propel East is not an easy job and that it requires a hefty time commitment. She wants teachers who will do “whatever it takes” to ensure that all kids are thriving.

At Propel East, the principals know that professional development of teachers is critical to increasing teacher effectiveness. They understand that in order for teachers to excel, like any other profession, they need rigorous training.

At Propel, teachers have 30 days of professional development. New teachers are assigned a mentor and receive consistent support from content-specific instructional coaches. Established teachers and teacher leaders have access to differentiated professional development, support from instructional coaches, leadership opportunities, and the autonomy to design their own curriculum to meet the needs of their students. This differentiated support has been critical to the school retaining a higher percentage of teachers than typical urban schools. Teacher collaboration and peer feedback is also encouraged and supported. Teachers are always trying to improve their craft and frequently visit each other’s classes and even observe teachers at other schools within the Propel network.

Additionally, students are only in self-contained classrooms for kindergarten and first grade. By second grade, students have different teachers for language arts and math/science. Propel recognizes the importance of having content experts starting in the early grades and fostering and honing the development of the skills needed to teach different subjects. Additionally, principals spend a significant amount of time in the classrooms and provide weekly feedback to teachers.

Propel East invests a significant amount of time developing strong relationships with parents. The school sets an ambitious goal of 100 percent participation for parent/teacher conferences. If work schedules make it difficult for parents to attend conferences, Propel teachers will go to them. In addition to formal conferences, teachers’ schedules allow for daily written communication between school and home, and many teachers speak with parents on a daily basis. The principal noted that she attends every Individualized Education Plan meeting for students with disabilities. This kind of involvement from teachers up to the administration is not something many parents are accustomed to.

Like all the other Opportunity Schools, Propel East uses student data to inform and drive instruction and create targeted interventions. Propel East emphasized that students are intimately involved in the process of analyzing their own data and setting goals for the year. After students take their first practice exam, teachers sit down (even with students as young as third grade) to review and analyze the results. They talk through their strengths and weaknesses and set concrete goals together. By doing this, students feel more invested in learning and improving.

Another critical component of Propel East is its nationally recognized arts program. Propel East students participate in about one hour of performing or visual arts each day. The school has an ‘Artists in Residence’ program, as well as partnerships with a host of community theater, music and dance groups. This focus on the arts allows many students who are less successful in other coursework to thrive in another setting and gain the necessary confidence to excel academically.

Demographics
& Cultural Data

Note: Data for attendance and discipline represents the 2013–2014 school year.

Racial Achievement Gaps

Racial Achievement Gaps

Proficiency: Total Percentage
of Students Proficient or Advanced

  3rd Grade
Math
3rd Grade
Reading
4th Grade
Math
4th Grade
Reading
5th Grade
Math
5th Grade
Reading
All students
School
vs
84 73 86 63 74 63
State
75 70 76 68 67 60
Economically disadvantaged
School
vs
78 59 79 54 73 62
District
54 48 53 41 42 32
Black
School
vs
71 64 71 47 65 53
District
49 46 53 41 40 32
  All students Economically disadvantaged Black
School
vs
State School
vs
District School
vs
District
3rd Grade
Math
84 75 78 54 71 49
3rd Grade
Reading
73 70 59 48 64 46
4th Grade
Math
86 76 79 53 71 53
4th Grade
Reading
63 68 54 41 47 41
5th Grade
Math
74 67 73 42 65 40
5th Grade
Reading
63 60 62 32 53 32
Back to
The schools

Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School

Elementary School

At the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, where 81 percent of the school is low-income and 99 percent of the student body is black, they have not simply closed the achievement gap they have reversed it. The most recent test results show that the black students performed better, on average, than their white counterparts in their chartering district.1 In math, of the 79 percent of students who scored at least proficient on the PSSAs, more students scored advanced than proficient.

ULGPCS attributes much of its success to the fact that the school had the same leadership for the last 14 years. From its inception 17 years ago, the school has had a relentless focus on academic excellence and rigor for all students. ULGPCS has a much longer school year as well as a longer school day. With 210 days of instruction, ULGPCS has 28 more days of instruction than schools in ULGPCS’s chartering district.

ULGPCS uses qualitative and quantitative data to provide individualized and regular intervention and enrichment for its students. Each year, teachers and parents work together to develop individualized learning plans and set yearly goals for each student. Students at ULGPCS are never tracked. Rather their teachers are continually assessing their academic ability and challenging them and supporting them as needed. Instruction is highly differentiated based on individual student needs. This includes a great deal of time spent on literacy instruction based on students’ individual abilities, differentiated centers for both reading and math, intervention groups for struggling students, and differentiated homework assignments and tests. Additionally, ULGPCS teachers have instructional aides to help with individual student needs either in small group instruction or one-on-one.

A supportive and caring culture is essential to ULGPCS’s success. At ULGPCS, teachers and staff believe that developing meaningful relationships with both students and parents is critical to their students’ overall growth and achievement. Each year, teachers do home visits in the fall in order to build trust between the teacher and each family. Additionally, parents are welcomed into the school and encouraged to take a very active role in their child’s education. Parents are asked to volunteer at the school for 30 hours if their schedule permits. Additionally, report cards are not sent home. Parents must come to the school to discuss their child’s progress. However, the school does not wait until a grading period ends to communicate with parents. Parents and teachers in are constant communication via phone and text. Teachers send constant updates to parents, celebrating successes as well as informing them of problems.

The school has a unique focus on African-American culture, traditions and history. The school’s founders were African-American community leaders and educators who saw that many children in their community did not have access to a quality education. They wanted to create a superior school where all students, especially poor African-American students, would thrive. They felt that exposure to culturally relevant role models and the opportunity to learn about their own culture and history was important to their students’ self-perception and ultimately, their success.

"2014 Report to the Community," A+Schools, http://www.aplusschools.org/research-and-reports/report-to-the-community.

Demographics
& Cultural Data

Note: Data for attendance and discipline represents the 2013–2014 school year.

Racial Achievement Gaps

Racial Achievement Gaps

Proficiency: Total Percentage
of Students Proficient or Advanced

  3rd Grade
Math
3rd Grade
Reading
4th Grade
Math
4th Grade
Reading
5th Grade
Math
5th Grade
Reading
All students
School
vs
87 81 87 68 61 58
State
75 70 76 68 67 60
Economically disadvantaged
School
vs
92 85 82 64 67 56
District
60 48 59 47 46 35
Black
School
vs
87 81 86 68 60 57
District
52 39 54 41 41 31
  All students Economically disadvantaged Black
School
vs
State School
vs
District School
vs
District
3rd Grade
Math
87 75 92 60 87 52
3rd Grade
Reading
81 70 85 48 81 39
4th Grade
Math
87 76 82 59 86 54
4th Grade
Reading
68 68 64 47 68 41
5th Grade
Math
61 67 67 46 60 41
5th Grade
Reading
58 60 56 35 57 31
Back to
The schools

Verner Elementary School

Elementary School

Verner Elementary School in Riverview School District is the only traditional public school that met the criteria to be considered an Opportunity School. Riverview is a small school district with only one other elementary school. Unlike Verner, the other elementary school serves a population that does not have significant percentage of economically disadvantaged students. When we asked the Riverview Superintendent if the students are treated any differently at the two schools she replied, “We don’t change the rules of the game–same curriculum, same high expectations.” In many urban districts, teachers frequently try to avoid schools with higher concentrations of poverty. This is not the case at Verner. The Superintendent and Verner staff scoffed at the idea that teachers would request to transfer from Verner to be able to teach at the district’s more affluent school. On the contrary, teacher stability is very high at Verner and teachers feel a strong sense of ownership over the school and the success of their students.

At Verner, the teachers and leaders believe that differentiating instruction is critical to the success of their diverse student population. Here, every student has his or her own individualized education plan called the Riverview Customized Education Plan, something that is usually only provided to gifted students or students with disabilities. By creating a customized education plan based on qualitative and quantitative data, Verner ensures that each student is being taught at the appropriate instructional level, whether they require remediation or further enrichment. At Verner, enrichment is considered just as important as remediation. According to the Superintendent, teachers at the school have a “moral obligation to grow students every year” no matter where they start. The district’s motto “Serious Success” exemplifies their belief that teachers are personally responsible for student growth and student success.

Frequent assessments allow teachers to determine the needs of their students. A math teacher explained that she uses data to separate her students based on the objective of the day. Typically, she creates several different math stations in each class. Technology allows certain students to work independently so that she has the opportunity to teach a more targeted lesson to a smaller group of students at the appropriate level.

Verner boasts a collaborative work environment where staff members work together to meet each child’s needs. If a student is struggling, teachers and staff work collaboratively to address that student’s needs. They will call for a team meeting that includes the student’s teachers, learning specialist, the principal and often the guidance counselor. This team develops a targeted intervention to ensure success. The school also offers an extended day program with targeted assistance for struggling students. Additionally, the school, in partnership with a local church, offers an afterschool homework club for kids that have difficulty completing homework at home.

The school district has a very stringent hiring process, which includes requiring candidates to teach a mock lesson to students as well interviews with both teachers and administration. While ultimately hiring new teachers is a district-level decision, the superintendent said that a great deal of weight is given to the principal’s preference.

Demographics
& Cultural Data

Note: Data for attendance and discipline represents the 2013–2014 school year.

Racial Achievement Gaps

Racial Achievement Gaps

Proficiency: Total Percentage
of Students Proficient or Advanced

  3rd Grade
Math
3rd Grade
Reading
4th Grade
Math
4th Grade
Reading
5th Grade
Math
5th Grade
Reading
All students
School
vs
83 83 86 71 72 64
State
75 70 76 68 67 60
Economically disadvantaged
School
vs
82 82 86 64 67 50
District
86 86 81 78 63 50
  All students Economically disadvantaged
School
vs
State School
vs
District
3rd Grade
Math
83 75 82 86
3rd Grade
Reading
83 70 82 86
4th Grade
Math
86 76 86 81
4th Grade
Reading
71 68 64 78
5th Grade
Math
72 67 67 63
5th Grade
Reading
64 60 50 50

Note: Disaggregated data for grade-level black student proficiency does not exist because there are not enough black students in each grade.

Back to
The schools

Propel McKeesport

Middle School Program

At Propel McKeesport, the administration and the teachers have a “whatever it takes” attitude to make sure all kids–83 percent of whom come from low-income families–are achieving at the highest levels. With 86 percent of its low-income students proficient or advanced in math by eighth grade and 90 percent proficient or advanced in reading by eighth grade, Propel McKeesport is truly a “beating-the-odds” school. Propel McKeesport has completely reversed the racial achievement gap by eighth grade. With 90 percent of black eighth graders proficient or advanced in math, black students at Propel McKeesport have a proficiency rate that is 10 percentage points higher than white students at the state level.

The belief that all students can succeed academically, regardless of external factors, is central to the mission of the school and guides all decision-making. This culture of high-expectations permeates through the halls of Propel McKeesport–from the academic rigor in the classroom to its full integration model to the expectation that all students should treat peers and adults with kindness and respect. These high expectations have created a school culture where learning is “cool.” In seventh and eighth grades, students get to be part of the “Nerd Herd” if they are on the honor roll, and students frequently encourage each other to “nerd up.”

At Propel McKeesport data driven instruction is gospel. As the principal remarked, “Our teachers live and breathe data and are constantly assessing students and meeting them where they are.” At the beginning of the school year, the principal, teachers and instructional coaches meet to set data targets for the entire year. This includes goals on the PSSAs as well as goals for internal benchmark assessments aligned to the state tests. The school also sets targets for critical cultural data like attendance rates and number of discipline referrals. These targets are posted throughout the school.

In the classroom teachers are continually using data to measure the success of individual students. Teachers have the flexibility to adapt their lessons and teaching approaches to ensure that they are being instantly responsive to the needs of students. As one middle school math teacher explained, students in his classes take weekly assessments aligned to the state standards. The data he collects from those assessments determines the content and focus of his curriculum and centers for the week.

Professional development of teachers is a critical part of the culture at Propel McKeesport and is infused into the daily schedule. Even amongst the strongest teachers, there is a constant drive to become a better teacher. Here, the principal is the instructional leader. She is in classrooms daily and completes at least five teacher observations each week and provides immediate feedback to teachers. In addition to the principal, teachers get an immense amount of support and training from content-specific instructional coaches. The principal and coaches meet regularly and, based on observations, will identify teachers that need additional support. The instructional coaches spend additional time planning and analyzing student data with these teachers. In some cases the instructional coaches will model a lesson within the classroom or even co-teach. These coaches have the flexibility and autonomy to spend their time where it is needed most.

Demographics
& Cultural Data

Note: Data for attendance and discipline represents the 2013–2014 school year.

Racial Achievement Gaps

Racial Achievement Gaps

Proficiency: Total Percentage
of Students Proficient or Advanced

  6th Grade
Math
6th Grade
Reading
7th Grade
Math
7th Grade
Reading
8th Grade
Math
8th Grade
Reading
All students
School
vs
91 58 90 75 89 89
State
71 64 75 72 73 79
Economically disadvantaged
School
vs
94 58 90 76 86 90
District
45 31 41 44 45 53
Black
School
vs
91 53 89 78 90 86
District
40 24 35 39 41 45
  All students Economically disadvantaged Black
School
vs
State School
vs
District School
vs
District
6th Grade
Math
91 71 94 45 91 40
6th Grade
Reading
58 64 58 31 53 24
7th Grade
Math
90 75 90 41 89 35
7th Grade
Reading
75 72 76 44 78 39
8th Grade
Math
89 73 86 45 90 41
8th Grade
Reading
89 79 90 53 86 45
Back to
The schools

Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy

Middle and High School Programs

The Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, known as SciTech, began as a student research project at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College in 2006. The CMU student behind the vision of SciTech was eventually hired by Pittsburgh Public Schools to oversee the formation of the school. SciTech, which opened its doors in 2009, currently serves students in grades 6 through 12. SciTech has the distinction of being named an Opportunity School for both its middle school and high school programs.

Unlike most comprehensive urban high schools, SciTech was created after several years of meticulous planning and research. The school’s rigorous STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum was thoughtfully designed to maximize student learning so that each student, regardless of background, would have the opportunity to excel. For example, every student must chose one of four concentration areas–computer science, life science, environmental science, or engineering. Requiring students to focus on a specific content area allows for in-depth exploration tailored to the interests of each student and gives students the opportunity to master a specific subject area.

Most schools have classes that are about 40 minutes long, but SciTech has only four 80-minute periods a day plus an activity period. Less transition time means more time on task. Longer periods allow for deeper, more thoughtful engagement and more time for students to work through the challenging coursework.

A flexible activity period is built into the school day. Students and teachers use this time to partner on a range of activities generated by student interest. Examples include chess, bicycling, robotics and movie clubs. This period was engineered to foster a supportive learning environment by encouraging students to build relationships with teachers outside the classroom.

At SciTech, the expectation is that all students will go to college and graduate with a four-year degree. As the principal noted, “College is what I want for my own children, so why would I not want that for all my students?” At SciTech, they do not just talk about college, they prepare students for getting into college and thriving once they get there. Students participate in a post-secondary prep class that helps them with college essay writing, SAT preparation and the practical elements of attending college, like navigating the financial aid process. By 11th grade, all students are exposed to AP classes. As the principal noted, students who have exposure to college level classes are much more likely to persevere when faced with the challenges of college.

While a well-designed school model is important, the principal is the first to say that the most important factor in SciTech’s success is the quality of the instruction. A STEM curriculum by itself is not going to yield high student achievement unless it is taught by highly effective and committed teachers. Teachers at SciTech are not only skilled educators with content expertise, but also school leaders who are working together towards the common mission of providing rigorous high-quality instruction.

Being a new school, SciTech had the unique opportunity to build its staff from the ground up. As they went through the hiring process, it became clear that these founding teachers were going have unique responsibilities related to designing the curriculum and developing the emerging program. Knowing that teacher continuity was key to the school’s success, the school district negotiated a carve out from the seniority system that governs other Pittsburgh public schools to ensure the stability and quality of its teaching staff. As such, the school was specifically designed to attract, develop, and retain excellent teachers.

Demographics
& Cultural Data

Note: Data for attendance and discipline represents the 2013–2014 school year.

Racial Achievement Gaps

Racial Achievement Gaps

Proficiency: Total Percentage
of Students Proficient or Advanced

  6th Grade
Math
6th Grade
Reading
7th Grade
Math
7th Grade
Reading
8th Grade
Math
8th Grade
Readin
11th Grade
Math
11th Grade
Reading
All students
School
vs
71 60 92 72 78 84 79 92
State
71 64 75 72 73 79 64 74
Economically disadvantaged
School
vs
71 59 92 69 73 87 68 88
District
51 35 57 49 53 62 37 51
Black
School
vs
67 50 77 50 65 85 61 86
District
49 33 50 42 47 58 34 47
  All students Economically disadvantaged Black
School
vs
State School
vs
District School
vs
District
6th Grade
Math
71 71 71 51 67 49
6th Grade
Reading
60 64 59 35 50 33
7th Grade
Math
92 75 92 57 77 50
7th Grade
Reading
72 72 69 49 50 42
8th Grade
Math
78 73 73 53 65 47
8th Grade
Readin
84 79 87 62 85 58
11th Grade
Math
79 64 68 37 61 34
11th Grade
Reading
92 74 88 51 86 47

Graduation Rate

NOTE: College matriculation data is from 2012–2013.

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Barack Obama Academy of International Studies

High School Program

“Nothing in life is so complicated that it cannot be achieved by discipline and hard work.” This is the motto of Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, the only Pittsburgh Public School with an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, an internationally recognized rigorous pre-college curriculum. The IB program, which is known for preparing students to be masters at literary analysis, seems to be working for all students at Obama. On the most recent Keystone literature exam, an impressive 94 percent of economically disadvantaged students scored proficient—20 percentage points higher than the state as whole.

At Obama, all 11th and 12th grade students are enrolled in IB classes, which are college level classes taught over a two-year span. In order to prepare students for the challenges of this demanding curriculum, students participate in a Middle Years IB program in 6th to 10th grades. Obama’s principal Dr. Walters, who was responsible for creating the IB program at Obama, said the process took years of meticulous planning. In order to become an accredited IB program, it is necessary to go through a formal and demanding accreditation process.

The success of an IB program hinges on having highly trained staff that are able to teach the rigorous IB curriculum. Just like the STEM curriculum at SciTech, the IB curriculum at Obama is only as good as the teachers who teach it. Obama’s principal credits the school’s success on its continuous focus on teacher professional development which is a mandatory requirement for all IB accredited programs in order to ensure the program’s integrity. Obama has successfully attracted a very dedicated group of teachers who are committed to creating lessons that engage and meet the needs of its diverse student population. Because the IB program has clearly defined expectations for student learning, teachers must create classes designed to meet these high standards. Teachers implement formative assessments as a daily norm to inform all future planning and instructional decisions.

Dr. Walters constantly repeats the following mantra to his students, “No excuses. Don’t waste time. Do your personal best.” For Obama’s principal, having his students struggle is an essential part of the process. His students often tell him that they would have straight “A”s if they went to a different high school. But for Dr. Walters, giving his students a false sense of accomplishment would be irresponsible. He wants his students to experience overcoming failure in high school so that when they go to college they have the skills and the confidence to thrive. While the expectations at Obama are high, there is a pervasive belief that all students can handle a rigorous curriculum if given adequate support. Dr. Walters has created a culture that is supportive yet demanding. While students may complain about the intense workload, former students often come back to Obama to tell current students about how their struggles in high school prepared them well for the challenges of college.

Obama has also been very thoughtful about engaging parents and has invested a lot of time and resources to include parents in their children’s education. Parents are frequently invited to school for fun and engaging family nights as well as learning experiences, such as an all-day Parent Institute with workshops and speakers geared towards helping parents support their children’s academic success.

Demographics
& Cultural Data

Note: Data for attendance and discipline represents the 2013–2014 school year.

Racial Achievement Gaps

Racial Achievement Gaps

Proficiency: Total Percentage
of Students Proficient or Advanced

  11th Grade
Math
11th Grade
Reading
All students
School
vs
73 92
State
64 74
Economically disadvantaged
School
vs
67 94
District
37 51
Black
School
vs
68 89
District
34 47
  All students Economically disadvantaged Black
School
vs
State School
vs
District School
vs
District
11th Grade
Math
73 64 67 37 68 34
11th Grade
Reading
92 74 94 51 89 47

Graduation Rate

NOTE: College matriculation data is from 2012–2013.

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Clairton City

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts

Cornell

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts

Duquesne City

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts

East Allegheny

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts

McKeesport Area

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts

Penn Hills

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts

Pittsburgh

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts

Steel Valley

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts

Sto-Rox

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts

Wilkinsburg Borough

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts

Woodland Hills

Proficiency: Total percentage
of students proficient or advanced on state exams

NOTE: Latest spending data is from the 2012–2013 school year.

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The districts
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