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Local education programs impact student success

By Tinamaria Colaizzi

Point Park News Service

Before receiving a Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship, a graduate of the Creative and Performing Arts High School thought studying fine arts at Carnegie Mellon University would be financially impossible.

Through the Executive Scholar Program, one recent graduate has the opportunity to complete an internship at PNC Bank alongside his college studies in Economics.

The Empowering Effective Teachers Program gave teachers the skills to motivate an African-American student to overcome adversity, increase his GPA and obtain a college scholarship.

Since 2008, The Pittsburgh Promise provided a total of $15,457,130 towards college scholarships for qualified Pittsburgh Public High School graduates and Empowering Effective Teachers cultivated stronger teacher/student connections, resulting in productive learning environments.

“We want to increase graduation rates, we want to increase the rate at which [students] attend some sort of post secondary education, and we want to see them with a degree or a diploma.”, says Shawn Butler, the Scholarship Manager for The Pittsburgh Promise.

Although two separate programs, The Pittsburgh Promise & Empowering Effective Teachers both motivate students and provide them with increased opportunities for academic success through financial support and mentoring programs, respectively. The Pittsburgh Promise is a non-profit organization helping Pittsburgh Public School graduates meet their higher educational goals with college scholarships. Empowering Effective Teachers employs an innovative evaluation process unique to the Pittsburgh Public School District as a way to help teachers recognize their strengths in order to inspire student achievement.

This year, The Pittsburgh Promise raised its annual scholarship maximum from $5,000 to $10,000 per year, making post-secondary education more attainable for students with financial burdens.

“This changes the schools that [students] can pick from.”, Butler explained, “now they have even more incentive to do well in high school so that they can get into those better schools.” While incentive is necessary, students also need preparation for rigorous college academics.

The Promise-Readiness Corps (PRC), implemented by Empowering Effective Teachers, recruits qualified teachers to serve as mentors for students from 9th to 11th grade. The PRC is implemented in only 3 comprehensive high schools (Taylor Allderdice, Carrick, Brashear), as the program strives for quality over quantity.

“In the past, systems would have basically said that everyone could do it and expectations would be lowered. We want these roles to truly be for teachers who have a proven track record of success.”, explained Sam Franklin, Director of the Empowering Effective Teachers program.

Franklin said that while there are not as many participating high schools as initially expected, that does not lessen the importance of this program on student success.

“High schools sometimes make students feel anonymous. They can get lost in the crowd.”, he said.

One important goal of the Promise Readiness Corps is to combat students’ insecurities through positive connections with teachers. In a promotional video for The Pittsburgh Promise, a CAPA graduate explains that her 5th grade art teacher urged her to take art classes at the local museum, which sparked her passion for fine arts. Through this support and personal dedication, she was awarded a Pittsburgh Promise scholarship to attend Carnegie Mellon University. Franklin believes that these student success stories are at the heart of the PRC. “It’s amazing for teachers to focus their professional growth and expand their impact on students throughout the district.”

The competitive and newly implemented Executive Scholar Program, a derivative of The Pittsburgh Promise, matches 25 students with a 3.5 GPA or higher with 1 of 5 Pittsburgh companies (UPMC, BNY Mellon, Giant Eagle, Highmark, and PNC Bank).

“The corporate executive scholars will begin their relationships with the company right as they begin college. The company will hopefully always be part of their lives”, Butler explained.

This initiative partners the selected students with Pittsburgh based companies, leading to potential internships or employment that add to the collegiate classroom experience. Butler hopes that this program, especially the partnership with corporate donors, will increase the amount of students who live in Pittsburgh after graduating from college. She explained that the program is successful in pairing each selected student with the donor that best fits their interest.

“This year, we have a selected Pitt student who has always been interested in banking. Because of that interest, he was matched up with PNC. We’re excited to see these interests become realities.”

Although students who participate in the Promise-Readiness Corps and the Pittsburgh Promise scholarships are universally hard-working, they are extremely diverse in interests, ethnicity, and backgrounds. Butler enthusiastically explains that the programs benefit students ranging from athletes in low income families to theatre arts performers to an expanding group of science and technology students.

“With the new Science and Technology School opening a few years ago,” he said. “I think that we’ll see an increase in students interested in majoring in natural or computer sciences.”

This was the case for a recent graduate who now majors in Petroleum and Natural Gas at Penn State University. When interviewed by The Pittsburgh Promise, the student stated that as a young African-American male, he faced pressures to rise above negative influences and both peer and societal pressures. Both programs place increased efforts to reach such demographics containing statistically higher drop out rates through support groups and one-on-one mentoring. Franklin believes that employing successful, motivated teachers is integral to student success. Empowering Effective Teachers recognizes that not every teacher is equally as effective, and the staff are prepared to respond in ways that help teachers improve through a Research-Based Inclusive System of Education (RISE) that combines classroom observation, evidence of student growth, and student feedback.

“Instead of asking students ‘Do you like your teacher?’, the feedback questions are very concrete and ask students to describe their experiences in the classroom,” Franklin said.

Franklin is confident that the program will improve student outcomes in the Pittsburgh Public School district because students are now able to voice their opinions about their learning environments.

In its first 5 years, The Pittsburgh Promise has raised $160 million towards college scholarships and increased connections with corporate sponsors. Being a fairly new organization, Butler states that they are now measuring college graduation rates and studying what the 2008 Pittsburgh Promise graduates are doing post-college. Additionally, Franklin hopes to expand the Promise-Readiness Corps to more high schools and incorporate more student feedback for teacher evaluations.

“Our meaningful evaluation is what distinguishes the Pittsburgh School District. We can successfully identify effective teachers and expand their impact throughout the school system.”

Graphic by Nikki Williams

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