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.

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."

Approaching Solutions for Chronic Absence

Aug 28, 2013
Gates Foundation / Flickr

In order for a student to be considered “chronically absent” they have to have missed 10 to 19 days of classes throughout the school year. In many cases, people are tempted to play the blame game and think teachers and administrators are not holding up their end of the bargain when it comes to keeping kids in school.

Dr. Linda Lane, superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, feels that “both the communities, the families and schools need to find common ground.” That common ground, she says is that everyone wants the kids to do well.

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

It’s a reality for many parents and caregivers in Pittsburgh — you’re stuck waiting for a bus in the city and your kid starts getting bored and antsy.

A new effort is hoping to turn these times into teachable moments.

Instead of advertisements for law firms or universities, 23 bus shelters around Pittsburgh now have a poster adorned with colorful pictures of things such as ice cream, picnics and kiddie pools. The “Word Play” posters are part of an effort from the Fred Rogers Company to get adults talking to and interacting with kids.

Phase 4 Learning Center

Phase 4 Learning Centers are often referred to as last chance high schools by many, but to Phase 4’s founder, Terrie Suica Reed, it’s also their best chance for many troubled students to find success in their high school careers.

Though many students who come into her program come from broken homes or are even homeless, Reed stands firm in her belief that “with the right support, the right network, they can do anything they want to do.”

Phase 4 Learning has been referred to by some of its students as the "last chance high school,” but the head of the 6-12 school prefers to think of it as a “best chance school” for success of their students.

Terri Suica Reed created the school to help reach students who may be having trouble in traditional schools.

“The formula is pretty simple, but yet it’s complex as well," Reed said. "It’s all about relationships. Everything about life is about relationships. You build relationships with people and we do that with our students.”

Ninety percent of success in school is showing up — that’s what the United Way and its partners believe.

The United Way launched its “Be There” campaign Monday aimed at making attendance a priority at schools across Allegheny County.

“The concept is very simple, it’s how do you get the people outside of the schools, the community agencies, the faith-based organizations, the youth workers who have a great relationship with young people, to encourage 100 percent attendance,” said Bob Nelkin, United Way of Allegheny County President.

Joey Spehar / Facebook

As a father, WYEP Morning Mix co-host Joey Spehar has a unique outlook on modern music. This led him to develop Cool Kids, a daily segment where listeners submit, “kid approved” songs and share stories about listening to quality music with their child.

“I’m a dad, my daughter’s almost two years old, and I found that she really enjoys music,” says Spehar. “I’m sure there are countless people out there who have had similar experiences.”

Dr. Rachel Whitcomb, assistant professor of music education at Duquesne University, says Spehar’s program touches on some important ideas in early childhood development.

Mateus / Flickr

For 18 year old Presidential Scholar Richard “Tom” McCoy, becoming immersed in computational linguistics began at an early age. Beginning with code cracking and summer camps about cryptology, McCoy developed a fascination with the way that foreign language “is kind of like a code or cypher,” he says.

Can Community Colleges Save the Economy?

Jul 30, 2013
CCAC North Library

Though they are sometimes mocked and often overlooked in the conversation about post-secondary education, community colleges are playing an important role in the reinvention of the American workforce.

With the costs of public and private universities skyrocketing and a changing economy that demands of a bevy of new skills, community colleges have become the primary option for many students seeking to gain crucial skills at a lower cost.

Making Promises the City Can Keep

Jul 26, 2013
Gates Foundation / flickr

The Pittsburgh Promise has been providing scholarships to Pittsburgh public school students since 2008. They've pledged to promote the development of neighborhoods, city school reform, and give city students access and opportunities to attend a higher education institution.

Five years since its inception, the first batch of Promise recipients are graduating from their respective colleges and universities, and many critics are argue that the program has not been effective. Saleem Ghubril, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Promise maintains that the scholarship program is helping hundreds of students succeed after high school, while Jake Haulk, President of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, asserts that little has been done to improve the quality of the public schools. He says students are not receiving a sufficient education upon high school graduation.

Teachers from across the United States have spent the last five weeks in Pittsburgh for the “Voices Across Time” program.

They've been learning how to incorporate music into their lessons, and the goal is to help students not only learn, but also connect with various subjects.

On the final Wednesday of the program, the group of teachers sat listening to a song called “The Blue Juniata.” Its lyrics are featured in the book "Little House on the Prairie." For the past month the teachers have been learning how to use such songs in their classes.

A recent policy brief from conservative think tank Allegheny Institute for Public Policy states that the Pittsburgh Promise is falling well short of its goals, and that its mission should be completely re-focused. But this isn’t the first time the Allegheny Institute has taken on the Pittsburgh Promise.

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