Report Finds Allegheny County's 'Opportunity Schools' Are In Short Supply

Jun 2, 2015

Like a lot of her classmates, 11-year-old Laney Staples has a second job.

“Their first job is to be a good student,” said Propel McKeesport teacher Keith Smetak, 41, of Irwin standing nearby. “Laney, here, is our tour guide.”

She tutors, too. Some children are bankers, others part of a tech-savvy “geek squad.” These positions offer Smetak’s middle-schoolers “a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

“For a fifth-grader to know that they have complete and total control of their week and their education, that if they get their work done early, they can move forward into those other jobs and skills they might like more. It empowers them on a different level than a math problem ever could.”

Great schools give kids the autonomy to learn and the confidence to persevere — that’s the takeaway from a report issued Monday by the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now, or PennCAN.

The charter school advocacy group took a close look at 102 of Allegheny County’s highest poverty schools and found only 6 percent of students — approximately 2,662 — are being taught in a way that consistently breaks the link between high poverty and low achievement.

They each attend one of six “opportunity” schools: Charter schools Propel East, Propel McKeesport and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh; magnet programs at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy and the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies; and the lone traditional public school, Verner Elementary of the Riverview School District in Verona.

Opportunity schools empower children to reach beyond the financial circumstances they were born to, PennCAN executive director Jon Cetel said.

“Schools serving low-income students can achieve at high levels, but there’s so much more we can learn,” he said. “We should also be frustrated and frankly outraged that there (are) only six.”

About 50 percent of students at these designated high-poverty schools scored proficient on state math and reading tests in 2013 and 2014. At comparable schools serving Allegheny County’s highest-income families, up to 84 percent of students excelled.

The 102 schools were selected for study based on their self-reported school populations where at least 60 percent of students are classified as economically disadvantaged.

Propel McKeesport Principal Lauren DiMartino, 31, of Lawrenceville said she understands those challenges.

“You hear on the news what’s going on in some of these communities,” she said. “I think there is definitely violence happening, issues around homelessness, moving around a lot … and not … having the sense of security we would like children to have.”

She tells them: “The neighborhood you grow up in doesn’t determine what your life is going to look like.”

Pittsburgh SciTech in Oakland was recognized for both its middle and high school programs. Form and function teacher Michael Miller, 34, of Verona acknowledges a lot of that success is probably rooted in the freedom teachers have at non-traditional schools.

“It is a very colorful school,” he said. “We do a lot of things here that other schools don’t get the opportunity to do.”

His students marry physics with the basics of a shop class. They build marshmallow catapults and use a 3D printer. Down the hall, body and behavior teacher Edwina Kinchington, 48, of Collier Township shows high-schoolers how to map their genetic code.

Many students come from families lacking post-secondary experience. They might have high aspirations, but they wouldn’t know how to look beyond fast food jobs to an educational experience with a possible stipend, she said.

“They didn’t realize there might be other opportunities out there so we try to act as facilitators to open up opportunities,” Kinchington said, “to help them see that there are other choices out there.”

Cetel said the report isn’t about pitting charter and magnet schools against traditional public schools. A good school is a good school, he said.

“It isn’t that charter schools are the answer,” he said. “It just shows that you can’t have a serious conversation in this region about giving more opportunities to low-income kids unless charter schools are part of the conversation.”

The group identified another 15 schools in Allegheny County on the cusp of high achievement despite high poverty. Advocates plan to celebrate the report’s release with the public at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Hill House’s Kaufmann Center.