Education in Homewood Brushton
It is important for all students to receive the best education they can. A better education can lead to a better job and the opportunity to break out of the cycle of poverty. Lower test scores lead to lower academic self-esteem. In a survey completed by over 450 ethnically and racially diverse dropouts, one third reported poor school performance to be the reason they left school. Therefore, scoring poorly on standardized tests can lead to lower interest in classes and a greater possibility that students will drop out of school altogether.
The District Schools
There are three schools at which students from Homewood can attend: Pittsburgh Lincoln School for pre-Kindergarten through fifth grade, Pittsburgh Faison School for Kindergarten through fifth grade, and Westinghouse High School for sixth through twelfth grade. Lincoln School emphasizes both technology and experimental learning in order to provide a well-rounded education. Pittsburgh Faison uses a learner-centered, arts-integrated model that promotes the use of multiple intelligences to help students become better learners.
Pittsburgh Westinghouse Academy offers a variety of courses for its students in order to provide quality education, not only academically but also in terms of relevant and comprehensive social development. Five fully accredited Career and Technical Education programs are offered. Students in these programs receive industry recognized training, professional development, internships, community service, and field and job placement opportunities. AP Biology, AP English 3, and AP English 4, in addition to Career and Technical Education Programs of Business of Sports Academy, Carpentry, Cosmetology, Culinary Arts, and Health Careers, are offered in addition to traditional classes.
All three schools offer learning support, speech and language, itinerant hearing and vision, autistic support, emotional support, and occupation therapy and physical therapy; the elementary schools also have regional emotional support classroom.
In spite of the opportunities offered by these schools, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) scores from all three indicate that there is a disconnect between the schools’ declarations and actual outcomes. The PSSA is a state-sanctioned test which tests students in third, fifth, sixth, and seventh grade in Math and Reading and fourth and eighth grade students in Math, Reading, and Science. The high school-only state-sanctioned exam, the Keystone test, is taken by eleventh graders and tests for Algebra 1, Literature, and Biology, and these results also indicate a disconnect. For the state of Pennsylvania, the average percentage of students who passed the PSSA Math was 39.6%, and for English, the average percentage was 50%. State-wide PSSA results can be found here.
Faison School’s Overall PSSA Results
Lincoln School’s Overall PSSA Results
Westinghouse Academy’s Overall PSSA Results
Only 21% of Westinghouse students fulfill the requirements for the Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship program that offers a $30,000 scholarship for any public school student who has attended the school from at least ninth grade through graduation and has lived in the city for at least four years. The minimum GPA is a 2.5, and the student must have maintained a 90% attendance rate.
Additionally, Westinghouse High is facing a new challenge starting in the fall of 2016: it will take more than 200 students, from grades 7 to 12, from Wilkinsburg. Parents and educators alike have expressed concern about the merger, mostly due to the struggling academics of both schools. There have been attempts to ease the transition, including panels to discuss how to unify the student body and a day for Wilkinsburg students to explore Westinghouse while Westinghouse students have the day off.
Outside of the school itself, the environment of the surrounding areas should also be considered. For students who have to walk to school, the sidewalks are uneven and, for Westinghouse students, they must pass a vacant lot with high levels of lead.
The low PSSA scores of the three district scores, despite the ways in which each school provides for its students, can possibly be explained by the amount of funding which goes to the schools. Because of the structuring of the United States government, education falls under the domain of the state rather than the federal government. As of 2005, roughly 83 cents to every dollar is estimated to come from the state and local levels. Most of the money for education comes from the neighborhood itself, with federal aid being awarded based on PSSA scores. In order to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), a school and every measurable subgroup of the school, such as special education or ESL, must have at least 78% of tested students achieve a Proficient or Advanced on the Math portion, and 81% of the tested students must achieve a Proficient or Advanced on the Reading Portion; at least 95% of students, for the school and within each measurable subgroup, must take the test. Failure to meet AYP two years in a row brings in extra help to the school, but continued failure can have other consequences, such as “corrective actions.”
Further, the PSSA has been shown to be biased against poor districts since better-funded schools have the budget to buy the textbooks created by the test makers. Rather than being based off general knowledge, the PSSAs are based off the information in these textbooks, giving a huge advantage to the schools who can afford them.
Beyond the test itself, the poverty in which the students live can also negatively impact their scores. Chronic stress from the conditions associated with living in poverty include impaired attention and concentration, reduced memory, and reduced motivation and effort. These factors limits a child’s ability and desire to do well, and they would only worsen during a high-stress situation like the standardized tests. For the PSSA, the English portion of the exam takes four days, the Mathematics portion takes three, and the Science portion takes two days; for the Keystone, the Algebra 1, Biology, and Literature portion each take two days to complete. Additionally, the amount of parental involvement is most likely to be decreased as parents struggle with their jobs and financial situation, so less time is spent being read to or spoken to. This results in children living in poverty knowing fewer vocabulary words than middle or upper class students.
Regarding the merger, different districts have different curriculums, so Wilkinsburg students might not know the same material that Westinghouse students of the same grade do. Adding 200 extra students will put even more strain on resources that cannot aid the current students, which would make it more difficult for Wilkinsburg students to be brought on the same page as the Westinghouse students. Further, the addition of Wilkinsburg students will likely not be seamless, with the new students needing to adapt to their new learning environment and possible animosity between them and the current Westinghouse students. Time and energy that could be spent on teaching would instead be spent on these non-academic needs. Although the school is attempting to simplify the transition, more should be done to ensure that the school year is dedicated to helping the students academically.
There is room for opportunity to consider alternative approaches to reversing the trend of failing education that has been observed at Westinghouse and similar public schools. We have observed the consistent poor performances of students for the past few decades and there has been little effective change geared to reversing this dynamic. Under-performance has become normalized at Westinghouse. There are hopes that in the next few years there will be drastic changes in results, but for this to occur we must assume drastic changes in the methods that produce said results.
Standard assessments are taken in April and May towards the end of the school year. The PSSA should consider moving testing dates to the earlier part of the year, in September or November. The theory behind this proposed initiative is to provide meaningful testing data that can be used for its purpose, to aid in progressing a student’s education. The results of a student’s test scores are not received until the summer months when educators and children are away for summer vacation. Because of this, the valuable data that is collected by standardized tests is not able to be implemented for its original purpose. To contact the Pennsylvania Department of Education to suggest this date change, please see this website.
Students can opt-out of both the PSSAs and the Keystones. Considering the length of each testing period, the amount of time dedicated to preparing for the exam, and the overall lackluster results, a possible option for the Homewood schools is to encourage as many students as possible to opt out of the exams. School time would better be spent on actual class, as this provides more quality education to the students without the additional stress of the exam. It is virtually impossible for the Homewood Brushton schools to meet the AYP requirements in regard to PSSA scores, so having a less than 95% take the exam will have no different outcome on the school.
There should be a push for more access to books so students have the opportunity to read for leisure. Reading for pleasure can counteract poverty’s effect on reading achievement. Programs similar to Junior Great Books could be implemented for all three schools, where there is a focus on improving students’ reading, thinking, and communication skills. A Reading Olympics competition could also be established, where there is a designated book list and students, at the end of the year, compete in teams to answer questions about the books. There would be multiple teams per school competing against one another or against teams from the other school, for the elementary schools. If possible, there could also be an incentive program where children who read so many books outside of school receive a reward, with the reward increasing per increment of 10 (0-10 gets a pizza party, 10-20 gets a novel of their choice, etc.). Rather than having formal reports to prove that they read the books, the students should be given free reign to present the knowledge they have learned, possibly through art, skits, or musical presentation. Students can check out books from the Homewood Public Library, or even order books from any of the libraries within the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
School sponsored after school programs and summer programs would likely provide valuable resources to a community where a large percentage of children do not have structured supervision after school hours. In these after school programs, children would benefit from supplemental education and life skills which would in theory “fill in the gaps” of what a child may be missing in their educational experience. The school summer program would have a more relaxed atmosphere conducive to activity, but curriculum would still be introduced to the children.
High-academically achieving Westinghouse students should be given the opportunity to tutor other high school students or elementary school students for credit. There could also be an arrangement made with the University of Pittsburgh or other local universities, where the university students have the opportunity to tutor Homewood Brushton students. They could also teach the Homewood Brushton students better test-taking skills or ways to manage test-anxiety. Tutoring with high school or university students might be less intimidating for students than with professional, adult tutors.
In regards to the merger between Wilkinsburg and Westinghouse, the school will need to prepare extensively to keep the transition as smooth as possible. Before the end of the current school year, the Wilkinsburg students should be given a survey provided by Westinghouse to see where how well what they were taught matches what Westinghouse teaches; this could include listing the subjects they have been taught, in what grade they were taught it, and how comfortable they feel with the subject. The Westinghouse teachers can then incorporate this information into their plans for the next school year, knowing which subjects to expand upon and which have been thoroughly covered for both sets of students. Additionally, there could be opportunities during the summer for the students from both schools to get together, which could include opening up Westinghouse and its grounds for a few days and allowing students to come and go as they please.
It is important to note that, although PSSAs and Keystone are representative of a student’s understanding in three subjects, they are not a comprehensive overview of what a child knows. Our knowledge of the Homewood Brushton schools are limited by the fact that we were not able to talk to any students. Any assessment of the current state of education in Homewood Brushton cannot be complete until there is input from the students. Rather than a written survey, which students might not take seriously or not fully understand, they should have the opportunity to speak with someone one-on-one to express their opinions about what they are learning and how they are learning. In order to accomplish this without wasting class time, students should sign up for time-slots throughout the day for three weeks and have the chance to speak with a university student. The data obtained from the talks can then be compiled and analyzed in order to determine how to maximize the effectiveness of tutoring sessions. Should a notable trend be found, they could take the results to the administrative board and have changes added to the curriculum.
In regards to the environment outside the school, there should be an improvement initiative to repair the sidewalks lead to the three schools, and any vacant lots should be treated for lead contamination, should the lead levels prove to be too high.
Systemic problems like the one we are faced with require the attention of the community in searching for a solution. We believe that the children deserve a chance to develop to their full potential regardless of the circumstances they were born into. We must not shy away from trying to implement reasonable innovative solutions to solve this problem.
End Goals and Timeline
Teachers at each school should meet sometime in May to discuss the establishment of reading programs and a reward-based reading system for the 2016-2017 school year. All school personnel should meet around this time to discuss the establishment of after-school programs and summer programs, with the hopes that the summer programs can be implemented for the last month of this summer (August).
Parents should be informed that opting out of standardized testing is an option (June), and they should be encouraged to opt their children out of the exams for the next year. They should also be informed about how to contact the Education Department to suggest moving the dates of the exams.
A survey for Wilkinsburg students should be created and sent to the school by the end of the current school year (June), and teachers should be advised of the results so they can plan accordingly for the transition.
A tutoring program should be established by the end of the current school year (June) or the beginning of the next (September), either with university students or Westinghouse students. Tutoring should include test-taking skills and ways to deal with test anxiety.
Local university students should be contacted with the offer of having one-on-one discussions with students by the end of the current school year (June), and these meetings should occur by January of 2017. Curriculum adjustments and suggestions should be available for the 2017-2018 school year.
Westinghouse grounds should be opened for a week during the summer (July) for all incoming students, with supervision from available teachers or other school personnel. If possible, host a dance at the school at the end of the week.
A plan to improve the environmental conditions around the school should be drafted and available to present to the local government by the middle of summer (July). Other ideas for improvements can be found on the IamHomewood Environment/Land Use page.
As many students from Westinghouse should be helped and guided so that they are capable of receiving the Pittsburgh Promise. This includes encouraging correspondence between Westinghouse students and university students/ technical school students, to provide insight into higher education experience and to help students decide if they’re more suited for college or for a trade school.
How Teachers Can Counter the Effects of Poverty