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.

On Monday afternoon, a chartered bus wound its way through the steep, narrow roads of the South Hills on its way to Baldwin High School.

On board were employees of HIAS, an agency that works with the State Department in bringing refugees to the United States. HIAS works with Jewish Family and Children’s Services, one of four resettlement agencies in the Pittsburgh area.

Pittsburgh has become a hub for refugees. This week HIAS is holding its national conference here, and among the activities are visits to where refugees live, work — and go to school.

Flickr user dcosand

Standardized: Lies, Money & Civil Rights

Dan Hornberger has been a high school English teacher for more than twenty years. During these years, his concerns regarding schools teaching to standardized tests spurred him to action.

The result is a documentary titled Standardized: Lies, Money & Civil Rights which he produced and co-directed.

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes

Feb 12, 2014
Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA


Dazzled by the bizarre and eccentric characters of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, children’s author Jonathan Auxier has always been fascinated by peculiar storytelling.

The Vancouver native moved to Pittsburgh to pursue a theater and writing degree from Carnegie Mellon University and fell in love with the city’s charm and enchanting geography. His book, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, spins the tale of a blind orphan who happens to be the greatest thief to ever live. 

The Failure to Educate Many African American Males

Jan 24, 2014

The graduation rate for African American males in Pennsylvania is 57 percent compared to 85 percent for white males--a 28 percentage point gap, according to the latest data from the Schott Foundation for Public Education.  Reasons for the discrepancy are complex.

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

Quality pre-K programs can help kids later in school, both academically and socially. But many families can’t afford to send their children to pre-school, and government funding for early childhood programs has decreased in recent years.

A statewide effort was launched Thursday to ensure all three- and four-year-olds have access to quality pre-K programs. Michelle Figlar is executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, or PAEYC. She said research has shown children who have access to strong pre-K programs do better overall in school.

When temperatures dropped below zero in the beginning of January every school district and private school in Allegheny County canceled class. But a few schools made sure their students attended class online.

Seton La-Salle Catholic High School in Mt. Lebanon was among them.

Principal Lauren Martin explained they do anything they can to avoid having to tack on make-up days in June for bad weather earlier in the year because parents have already made summer plans and the kids are unfocused and eager to get out of school.

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Students from three dozen middle schools across the region gathered at Carnegie Music Hall Saturday for Pittsburgh’s 15th annual Future City competition.

Coordinated by the Carnegie Science Center, the competition challenges students to imagine and build the cities of the future.

Linda Ortenzo, director of STEM programs at the science center, said getting to the actual competition is a semester-long process.

State House Passes Plan to Redevelop School Funding Formula

Jan 16, 2014

The state House has passed a plan that could bring lawmakers back to using a funding formula when doling out money to school districts across Pennsylvania.

The legislation would create a commission to review education funding and make recommendations for a new formula--something education advocates have urged for years.

Flickr user albertogp123

The stereotypes about adults seeking GED certification can be ugly and simplistic. But the reality is that many lack a high school diploma for reasons largely outside their control: health problems, family issues and immigration status, just to name a few.

Some, like Rebekah Petrakovits, were home-schooled without proper oversight from school officials who were supposed to monitor their progress.

The Pittsburgh region will continue as a “Hive Network.”

The MacArthur Foundation, which selected Pittsburgh in February as just the third “hive” in the nation, following New York and Chicago, has re-authorized and funded the project for another two years.

The goal of the Hive Network is to expand learning for young people beyond schools to museums, libraries, afterschool programs and community centers. Participating organizations offer programs to engage youth in learning based on their interests.

The Challenges Of Suburban Homelessness and Education

Nov 21, 2013
Michael Lynch / 90.5 WESA

Guests include: Elizabeth Kneebone, Fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty, Chuck Keenan, administrator in Allegheny County's Bureau of Homeless Services, Kyoko Henson, a home and school visitor for the Penn Hills School District, Joe Lagana, founder and CEO of the Homeless Children's Education Fund, and homeless student Kevin Lee, winner of a national scholarship, with his mother Tamara Williams

There are nearly 20,000 homeless school age children in Pennsylvania and that’s a small portion of the 1.2 million across the country.

Local and national experts gathered in Pittsburgh on Friday for the fourth annual Homeless Education Network Summit to discuss an issue of rising concern: suburban poverty, homelessness and the challenge of education.

Since 2000, the number of poor people living in the suburbs grew by 64 percent. And today, about 16.4 million poor people are living in suburbs, compared to 13.4 million in the cities.

Allegheny County is no different.

In the Pittsburgh region alone, the suburban poverty rate increased 15.7 percent between 2000 and 2011; while the city saw a 6.3 percent increase.

It’s no question that technology has changed the world over the last few decades, from how we shop to how we share our lives. In the U.S., many public school districts are in the process of making major changes thanks to technology. Leaders in education and technology are hoping schools get it right because a lot is at stake.

In the not-so-distant past it was pretty commonplace to be taught solely out of a text book and worksheets in the classroom – maybe you’d get a video on a sub day. Today, there are many more options thanks to computers, tablets and other smart devices.

Minority and special-needs students are more likely to be disciplined by being suspended or expelled from schools. That’s according to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania: Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools.

The study’s author, ACLU’s Harold Jordan, aggregated data from the commonwealth’s 500 public school districts on out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and removal by police.

University of Pittsburgh Center for Urban Education

When the No Child Left Behind program was implemented in 2002, it had an overall goal of closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged student groups and well-off students and making schools and teachers accountable for the performance of their students on new math and reading standardized tests.

More than a decade later, the program has not had the desired results, says Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. Students and schools in lower income areas continue to not do as well on standardized tests as students in more affluent areas.

Flickr user Claire Cook44

According to the Nation’s Report Card released last week by the Department of Education, the achievement gap narrowed slightly in Pennsylvania over the last two years.

As Pittsburgh-area schools consider ways to shrink the gap further, they might look to Montgomery County, Maryland.

That Washington, D.C.-area school district has dramatically reduced the gap while posting the highest graduation rate for black males in the nation.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood for The Fred Rogers Co. after landing a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The three-year grant is part of the NSF’s Advancing Informal Learning program and is the foundation’s first preschool mathematics investment in the Pittsburgh region.

About $1.2 million will go toward the development of a new cartoon, “Peg + Cat.” The Fred Rogers Co. is the executive producer of the program, which follows a girl and her cat as they use mathematics to solve everyday problems.

More of Pennsylvania’s fourth and eighth graders are proficient in math and reading than the national average, but the achievement gap between white and minority students in the commonwealth is only shrinking slightly.

"I'm glad to see achievement in Pennsylvania is generally higher than the national average, but it's not where we want it to be and we're still concerned about the racial achievement gaps not closing," said Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools in Pittsburgh.

Tammy Terwelp / 90.5 WESA

“Where’s the moral outrage over the lack of equity in education,” asked Duquesne University Dean of Education Olga Welch who attended a recent community forum on the achievement gap held by 90.5 WESA.

“Where is it,” replied forum panel member Jeremy Resnick, a founder of Propel Charter Schools, “it’s missing.”

Dozens of parents, teachers and administrators crowded the Community Broadcast Center recently for a public forum as part of WESA’s Life of Learning initiative.

Courtesty photo

You’ll pardon Jordan Tyler, Chelsea Geruschadt, Raina Bradley and Katelyn Ripple if their thoughts occasionally drift from social studies, algebra 2 and physics back to what they absorbed this summer in Italy, Argentina, Spain and Costa Rica respectively.

Jordan: "My experience could be described as amazing, fun, life-changing, unforgettable."

Chelsea: "My experience was once in a lifetime."

Raina: "My trip to Spain was extremely memorable."

Katelyn: "I experienced more in a month than I thought I would experience in a lifetime."

“If the people of Pittsburgh loved their children as much as they love the Steelers, the schools would be in great shape,”  said Professor Pedro Noguera from NYU’s School of Culture, Education and Human Development

He as a keynote speaker at Duquesne University Wednesday at a forum on  social justice in public education for poor minority students. 65 educational, community leaders, parents and students gathered  to determine how to seek fairness and equality in public education for children and youth in under-represented populations.

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

It's a typical day at the Children’s School at Carnegie Mellon University, and as director Sharon Carver walks from room to room, children ages 3 to 5 are bursting with activity.

In one space a little boy digs in a sandbox, in another corner children try to match recycling materials to the correct bins, and at another table children are navigating the serious task of sharing and shaping Play-Doh.

After taking stock of the activities Carver asks a reporter, “Which things were play and which things are not play?”

A Community Forum on the Education Achievement Gap

Oct 22, 2013

On October 29 as part of our Life of Learning Initiative, 90.5 WESA will host a community forum featuring a panel of experts to address the problem of Pittsburgh’s educational achievement gap.

Kevin Gavin is the Executive Producer for Special News Projects and says much of the forum will be devoted to exploring contributing factors to the gap.

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Ken and Deb Zuroski, along with their three kids, Tristan, 18, Haley, 15, and Ian, 7, aren’t a very serious bunch overall. On a recent afternoon, there was a lot of good-natured teasing going on around the dining room table of their Squirrel Hill home.

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

Bill Cosby once said “the essence of childhood, of course, is play.”

But play for children today is sometimes very different than it was even five or 10 years ago, as the prevalence of smart phones and tablets is changing the way children play and learn.

Take 4-year-old Max. He’s in preschool and is learning to read and spell, sometimes with the help of apps on his mom and dad’s iPhone or iPad.

The calls didn’t come on the first or second days of school. Or even the third. But they came soon thereafter and each day more of them are coming in.

"What parents are finding is that the manpower that there to support their kids one on one isn't there," said Cindy Duch, director of parent advising at the Parent Education and Advocacy Leadership Center, or PEAL, an advocacy group that helps out parents of children with disabilities.

Marcus Charleston / 90.5 WESA

With emphasis on maintaining positive intergenerational relationships and boosting the self-esteem of struggling students, the OASIS Tutoring Program recruits and trains older adults to tutor kids in the Pittsburgh Public and Woodland Hills school districts.

Tutor Coordinator John Spehar and tutor Charlene Briggs say the program is beneficial for students’ academic and emotional health.

“If their self-esteem is higher, they’re more interested to learn and work on activities,” says Spehar.

Elizabeth Forward may be located in a suburban and rural area, but it might hold the future of teaching and learning through technology.

The school district is the first in Pennsylvania accepted as a member of the League of Innovative Schools.

The district is one of eight new members of the league, which is a coalition of education agencies with the goal of enhancing teaching and learning.

WordPlay: Informal Learning on the Go

Aug 29, 2013
Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

Preschoolers in the city of Pittsburgh can forget the mundane and seemingly endless minutes of staring down the street for a bus.

A new program called WordPlay, by the Fred Rogers Company is meant to spark conversation between parents and children at bus stops. It’s also sparked a conversation about literacy and education.

The Problem of Chronic Absenteeism

Aug 28, 2013
Haldan Kirsch / 90.5 WESA

Chronic absenteeism is a key driver of the nation's achievement, high school graduation and college attainment gaps. The pattern for kids missing school begins as early as kindergarten.

Linda Lane, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent, Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and Ken Smythe-Leistico, assistant director at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development address the various reasons for chronic absenteeism.

The Impact of Absenteeism

Aug 28, 2013
Haldan Kirsch / 90.5 WESA

Chronic absence takes a toll on students and the rest community from an early age. Katie Carroll is a Kindergarten teacher at Pittsburgh Faison School and thinks future learning patterns are developed as early as the first year.

"I try to establish relationships with parents so that the kids are really excited about coming to school."