Will A+ Schools make schools work?

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This week, A+ Schools launched their new School Works program, a community-based action initiative through which volunteers will interview Pittsburgh Public School District principals. The goal is to discover where there are inequities within the schools and to create an action plan for correcting those inequities.

BrentleyHarris
MARK BRENTLEY and CAREY HARRIS

“We’re trying not to go in with any preconceived notions,” said A+ Executive Director Carey Harris. “We assume all schools aren’t getting the same things, and there’ll probably be some evidence of that. Maybe we’ll confirm some assumptions but maybe we won’t.”

A+ is a non-profit organization that works as a community advocate to improve area schools and student achievement. Their other programs involve monitoring the local school boards as well as teachers.

The School Works program is focused on monitoring resources within schools such as, a school’s support system for teachers and students, post-secondary preparation, course availability, dropout prevention and parent engagement.

“We’re specifically interested in the resources and opportunities in schools for students in middle and high school,” Harris said. “We do hope this will give us something to think about and hopefully act on.”

Though District 8 School Board member Mark Brentley admitted he is not familiar with the School Works initiative, he said he doesn’t expect A+ to make much of an impact. Instead, he said the organization serves as a promotional tool for Superintendent Mark Roosevelt.

“I can tell you that it would be hard to accept anything from A+ because of their political roots, often times regurgitating what the administration is trying to pull over on the parents,” Brentley said. “It’s about promoting Mark Roosevelt even when it fails and for some board members it puts us at a serious disadvantage.”

Brentley said A+ has supported many of the superintendent’s plans that in his eyes were costly and have failed. This includes the “right-sizing” plan that led to the closings of a number of local schools, several of which Brentley said had some of the district’s most successful students.

Brentley said he would like to see an independent organization made up of parents, similar to an organization that existed under former superintendent John Thompson.

“(A+ has) always managed to find one or two parents to put on their board but most of the real parents have quit and it’s because of their political agenda,” Brentley said. “I think for the most part the parents can see through them.”

Harris dismissed Brentley’s claims saying A+ has always worked with the best interests of the students in mind.

“I don’t think advocating on behalf of our kids is a matter of being for or with the superintendent and I think to cast the discussion in that light belittles the value of our kids,” Harris said. “Our work is completely independent and it’s based not on what the superintendent says but what the research says. Should that align with the superintendent, than I think we should all take comfort.”

A+ based their School Works program on the Ready Schools Project, a Washington, D.C. based program conducted by D.C. Voice. Since the D.C. program began, Harris said the district’s schools have improved.

“They have a lot more schools and much tougher problems,” Harris said. “They had some success in getting things changed so we were encouraged by that.”

Volunteers will ask a series of 50 questions in a one-hour interview. Twenty-three middle and high school principals will be interviewed throughout the two-week process.

“They’re all questions we feel principals can answer off the top of their heads,” Harris said. “We really want to find out if principals have what they need for students to be successful and if not what would they like. What stands in their way of getting it? Is it money or is it access?”

Harris said the volunteers will compare their research with other data such as student outcomes and disciplinary measures in order to determine what measure should be taken by the schools and the community.

“We think the recommendations will be recommendations for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, but we also think they will be recommendations for the communities themselves. It’s not just going to be a list of things given to the district,” Harris said. “Our purpose is to be a community force. We emphasize community because we think there should be a third institution because the schools can’t do it all themselves.”

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