Life of Learning

90.5 WESA's Life of Learning series focuses on learning and education activities, opportunities and challenges in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

This multi-year commitment to providing learning-focused news coverage in southwestern Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Grable Foundation.

Pittsburgh has been selected to be part of a new initiative by the National League of Cities to develop early education programs and improve the outcomes for young children in communities across the country.

College costs are on the rise and government financial assistance is shrinking, leaving many high schoolers to wonder what they can do to ensure their future success without taking on massive debt.

A recent partnership between the Community College of Beaver County (CCBC) and Lincoln Learning Solutions, formerly known as the National Network of Digital Schools, may make a difference in Butler County and the surrounding region.

The Carnegie Science Center has received a $614,000 grant to promote education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The two-year grant, from The Heinz Endowments, will benefit the Carnegie STEM Excellence Pathway, which offers schools resources to improve their STEM classes.

There has been a public outcry and calls for changes at the Allegheny County Jail in the wake of the unexplained deaths of two inmates in May. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald decided to sever ties with Corizon Health Inc., the provider of health care services at the facility. The first public hearing on the matter has been scheduled for June 23  in the County Council chambers of the Allegheny County Courthouse. We'll talk with County Council member Heather Heidelbaugh and Julia Johnson of the Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project.

Johnson expresses her concern for the proper treatment and counseling of inmates in hopes to better the health care services in the jail:

"There just needs to be more compassion as far as people with mental health issues and they're compounding those issues at the jail. 60% of people at the ACJ have mental health issues and they are not being give their anti-psychotic medicine, they are not getting counseling." - Julia Johnson

Also in the program, beloved music teacher Adrianne Kelly is retiring after 33 years at Minadeo Elementary School and Steel City Squash is teaching a little-known sport to youth in the Hill District, combining its physical activity with academic development.

Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

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.

School districts in seven western Pennsylvania counties are getting a share of $530,000 in Allegheny Intermediate Unit grants for programs that blend science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or STEAM.

Innovative Modular Solutions

The National Forum on Education Statistics reports Pennsylvania has the widest funding gap between wealthy and poor school districts. Ensuring every student in PA has access to a quality education, regardless of where they live, is the goal of the Campaign for Fair Education Funding. As state legislators prepare for budget talks we’ll address the need for a new public school funding formula with Patrick Dowd, executive director of Allies for Children and Cheryl Kleiman, attorney with the Education Law Center.

Dowd discusses the goal of the Campaign for Fair Education Funding: 

“We have lots of different views on lots of different issues, but on this one we have a common agenda. We want to make sure that the Pennsylvania legislature adopts, by 2016, a fair funding formula for the students of public schools here in Pennsylvania.” –Patrick Dowd

Also, Sasha King explains how to become management material, and WESA's Liz Reid and the Tribune-Review's David Conti present a three-part series on smart meters for the home. 

US Department of Education / flickr

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings is the keynote speaker for this year's Barbara A. Sizemore Summer Conference on Urban Education, a one-day conference held by Duquesne University’s School of Education. Dr. Ladson-Billings has focused her research on critical race theory, and has dedicated multiple studies to determining best practices for teachers who are educating within a racially diverse student body. 

Ladson-Billings explains her fear of losing great teachers, and ultimately why she wrote The Dream Keepers: 

“One of the reasons that I wanted to do the study that resulted in the book, The Dream Keepers, was my fear that some incredible knowledge and skill was going out the door and no one was documenting it.” -Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings 

Also, Two German professors with the Acoustical Society of America uncover Pittsburgh's urban "soundscape," and an upcoming expo at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center takes a focused look at improving multi-modal transportation.

Copyright Martha Rial

The Manchester Bidwell Corporation was founded in 1968 by Bill Strickland with the intent of using the environment to shape people's lives. We’ll discover his philosophy for the creation of the guild. We’ll also speak to Chief Operating Officer of the National Center for Arts and Technology Paulo Nzambi and Vice President of Operations Kevin Jenkins on their roles within the Bidwell company.  

“You can do extraordinary things if you have the right people around you. Part of the message is…you don’t have to go to the world, you can bring the world to your neighborhood, and it’s not where you start that matters, it’s where you end up.” -Bill Strickland 

Also, we'll talk about the Bidwell Training Center-- an institute of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation and home to the Manchester Craftsman's Guild, a league of youth and adults working in tandem to create a one-of-a-kind growth and learning experience. 

Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

Applying for college seemed like the next logical step for Senque Little-Poole. The Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy senior said his educational experience has been a push to get a better grade, a better Grade Point Average and to get accepted into a good college.

Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA News

Last Tuesday, five local high school students engaged the community in a panel discussion focused on keeping classrooms relevant to students' everyday lives and their future goals. Recorded live at the Community Broadcast Center, panelists presented a critical reflection of the standards modern students are held to and how they sometimes overshadow learning. 90.5 WESA's Life of Learning series focuses on learning and education activities, opportunities and challenges in the Greater Pittsburgh area. 

Amma Ababio, for instance, voices concern about where -- and how -- schools and teachers place the emphasis on learning:

"So much of school is because of GPA, because you want to get into a good college for your GPA, because of the SAT test, and it detracts from learning. It detracts from actually learning material. It becomes 'How well can you memorize something in forty-five minutes? How well can you memorize something in two months?'" -- Amma Ababio


Regular vocabulary and comprehension programming will be available to Homewood children and families through a $1.5 million two-year grant from PNC’s Grow Up Great initiative.

The six partners in the initiative – Carnegie Science Center, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy – tested the program this past fall at various Homewood locations. The Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children has worked in Homewood for several years providing opportunities for early education and development. PAEYC’s Early Learning Hub in Homewood was one of the pilot locations for Buzzwords.

Nearly $900,000 in grant funding has been pledged to implement Pittsburgh Public School’s plan to transition a Bloomfield elementary school into a partial STEAM magnet.

The school board voted to develop Woolslair PreK-5, the district’s smallest school with 110 students, into a partial science, technology, engineering, arts and math – or STEAM – magnet school in September after initial plans to close the school. The plan also includes developing curriculum at three other STEAM magnets, Lincoln prek-5, Schiller 6-8 and Perry High School. The board will vote to accept the grants at the April 22 legislative meeting.

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

The students in Zack Hull’s 8th grade English class are eager to share their “This I Believe” essays. For several years, he has had his students dig within themselves and write about something they believe in, and he said the end of their 8th grade year is the perfect time to do that.

Ryan Stanton/Flickr

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Acts. Reauthored in 2001 and now more widely known as No Child Left Behind, the law will be getting a major rewrite in 2015. NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia covers the changes coming to the most enduring education legislation that Congress has ever passed. 

Eskelsen Garcia says the complaints of parents and teachers have provided a chance to make major changes to the acts.

"We have an opportunity because more and more members of Congress might have an open mind about ending this test-and-punish routine and replacing it with better information."-Lily Eskelsen Garcia

Also today, we explore the idea of technological fluency, and civil rights activist and UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski works to institute minorities in STEM-related careers. 


Chris Squier / 90.5 WESA

Eleven-year-old gymnast Danielle Norris is practicing a roundoff back tuck dismount for her balance beam routine. She has a meet coming up soon, and later this month she's competing in the state championship. Danielle’s mom, Karen Norris, says she practices about 22 hours a week.

“When Danielle was first invited to join the team and they told us the amount of hours that were involved, we were a little taken aback by that,” Norris said. “That was fourth grade.”

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

Every Wednesday, at a former Catholic school building in Brookline, more than 100 children gather for “People are Always Learning Something” or PALS, enrichment – a weekly co-op. The families there homeschool their children, and pretty much everyone said they’d been asked by one or more people how their children socialize if they are homeschooled.

Josh Raulerson / 90.5 WESA

For many, the mention of "homeschooling" conjures negative stereotypes about the people who practice it: Homeschool families are religious fundamentalists who shun secular society, or libertarian ideologues who reject the whole idea of public education on principle.

Area educators gathered Monday to discuss best practices in promoting student achievement in public education at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s first Learning Together conference.

The day-long conference featured 50 round-table discussions and sessions showcasing what regional educators do to increase achievement in schools.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit is one of 29 units in Pennsylvania. It provides specialized education services to the 42 suburban Allegheny county school districts.

Erika Beras / 90.5 WESA

Lynn Lightfoot’s kids have an easy commute to class.

It's down a flight of stairs and onto couches in a room crammed with everything from books to DVD’s to board games. Her teenagers, Aleeshyah and Noah, aren’t just her children — they’re her students. They are two of about 21,000 children who are homeschooled in Pennsylvania.

Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

It’s a conversation heard around countless dinner tables or on the way home. What did you do at school today? The answer most often is nothing or "I don’t know" or "I played."

That one-sided conversation is common in early education students. Parents can try to talk to teachers during the shuffle of picking up their child, but that’s usually only slightly more productive.

Charter schools in the commonwealth have grown rapidly. Over a five year period beginning in 2006, enrollment in the state increased by 54 percent, and according to the most recent data, 6 percent of Pennsylvania students now attend a charter school.

But a study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania at Penn State has found that charter schools are more racially segregated than their public school counterparts. 

Gateway to the Arts

Early childhood learners outperform their peers when they are taught with an arts-integrated background, according to an independent study of a model used in 11 Pittsburgh area schools.

Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

Parents, educators, students and political representatives met for two hours Saturday to discuss reducing suspensions in school and create a climate that doesn’t push students out of school.  

The Education Law Center of Pittsburgh and Great Public Schools led a workshop-style conversation at the Kingsley Center in East Liberty titled, “educate don’t incarcerate,” a nod to the notion that disciplining students by pushing them out of school creates a pipeline to future incarceration.

Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

A high school history teacher at Ellis School in Shadyside is showing his 11th grade students the evolution of racial attitudes in America by exploring how common items have had different meanings for black and white people.

Students speak in the first person and personify one item a week including a typewriter, bus ticket, acoustic guitar, police baton and a flapper dress.

Dawn Biery

Aileen Owens is the Director of Technology and Innovation for the South Fayette School District. Last year she was the recipient of two national awards for Digital Innovation in Learning.

As part of 90.5 WESA’s Life of Learning Initiative, Ms. Owens joins us to discuss her approach to teaching technology. 

Ms. Owens tells us more about the work she did with teaching technologies for k-12 education:

Cars assembled by middle schoolers zipped down the 65-foot elevated track lining the wall in less than a second.

The cars moved so quickly, the engineers often had to ask if their car won the race.

The dragster car competition was just one of several events at the Technology Student Association (TSA) regional competition at Pittsburgh Technical Institute. The organization focuses on bringing technology into classrooms and extending that learning after-school. Nearly 400 high school students attended the first day and 200 middle school students on the second day.

Cathy Lewis Long Explores the Future of Pittsburgh Education

Dec 10, 2014
Marcus Charleston / 90.5 WESA

Last week educational visionaries from the area who are rethinking education gathered for their annual summit. As part of the WESA’s Life of Learning Initiative we’ll explore what’s on the educational horizon with Cathy Lewis Long, Executive Director & President for The Sprout Fund.

Building Neighborhood Bridges to Innovation

Dec 8, 2014
Peter Radunzel / Flickr

Pittsburgh native, entrepreneur and Urban Innovation 21 CEO William Generett is an advocate looking to connect the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods to the tech sector. 

He joins us in Studio A for a conversation on how he plans to accomplish this goal.

More than 400 teachers, administrators, librarians, artists, out-of-school educators, mentors, parents and students crowded a ballroom at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center Friday to discuss how to create a more integrated learning environment in Pittsburgh.

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