A+ Schools calls for focus on ‘vulnerable’ schools

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A+ Schools is asking that the Pittsburgh Public School District’s “Empowering Effective Teachers Plan,” approved last November, include emphasis on vulnerable schools, most of which are in Black communities, where students are most in need of strong teachers.

“Most everything we think they need to be doing, they’re doing. But if you have a great plan and it’s system-wide you could end up with something like you have now if you don’t target some vulnerable schools,” said Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools. “It’s really important that our most vulnerable schools get some attention.”

This request by A+ comes in light of a 15-month study of “Tools, Rules and Schools,” which examined teacher distribution and movement, staffing rules and working conditions in the PPS district.

The “Empowering Effective Teachers Plan,” which will be funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grant, has already been designed to address the areas examined in the A+ study.  It will change the way the district recruits, trains, evaluates, promotes and pays teachers in order to ensure every student has access to quality teachers.

Among the A+ study’s findings was that the most vulnerable schools in the district had the least experienced teachers and the highest turnover rates for teachers. By the study’s definition, vulnerable schools are “those with the highest percentage of low-income students, higher number of disciplinary incidents and lower student achievement.”

Although Harris did not quantify experience and turnover, she said it is important to establish a stable team of highly effective and committed teachers at the most vulnerable schools. The study indicated that the lack of a support system for teachers was a key reason for turnovers.

“Our students, especially our neediest students, need teachers who have sufficient support and want to stay and make a positive difference,” Harris said. “This gives teachers the opportunity to build relationships with the community, parents and other teachers. It creates a culture where people—including students—feel they are part of something important and what they do matters.”

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said the “Empowering Effective Teachers Plan” would be a “system- wide improvement with specific emphasis on the neediest schools.” He disagreed with sentiments that high teacher turnover rates are bad for students.

“This is an extremely complicated issue. Until we have a more sophisticated measure of teacher effectiveness, which we will, and then we see how our effective teachers are distributed at schools, we don’t know how to respond to this,” Roosevelt said. “The way I look at the report is it draws attention again to the single most important issue in education and that’s teacher effectiveness.”

When asked how the most vulnerable schools can be made more attractive to teachers, Roosevelt said paying teachers more is not enough. Echoing Harris, he also said moving one highly effective teacher to a vulnerable school is not enough to turn the school around.

“Putting people where they don’t want to be never works. You’ve got to identify the skill sets and attitudes and desires of teachers,” Roosevelt said. “Taking an individual highly effective teacher and moving them to a troubled school helps a little bit, but taking a cohort and moving them is more effective.”

A+ will hold a series of meetings to discuss the findings of their recent “School Works” study, through which 23 principals in the PPS were interviewed. The first of these meetings will be held Jan. 23 from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Crossroads United Methodist Church.

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