In a room at Oliver High School, there is a display showing student proficiency on the most recent Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. While the box representing the lowest level of achievement is full of student faces, the box at the highest level is sparsely dotted with only a few faces.
This is not the kind of achievement William Strickland likes to see. The Oliver graduate turned president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation recently starred in a documentary about public education and the success he had in a system often criticized for letting African-American boys fall through the cracks.
“My participation was to show that public education can work. It’s very easy to talk about what’s wrong,” Strickland said. “I think it’s the basis for hope. I went to Oliver High School, I’m very proud of it.”
Strickland’s part in the documentary “Waiting For Superman” examined how Pittsburgh Public School District students have been positively impacted by the programs at Manchester Bidwell, which uses the arts to motivate its students. The documentary casts light on the challenges of urban education, particularly honing in on the success of charter schools such as the Harlem Children’s Zone run by Geoffrey Canada.
“With all due respect to Geoff Canada, that’s not the kind of model I think will work here. I’m not a charter school guy,” Strickland said. “We need to be bringing resources to the schools.”
Now Strickland will use his capital and community building expertise to bring resources to one of the district’s most needy schools in a partnership between Manchester Bidwell and his alma mater.
“We’ve got to get these kids learning. I want to be a full partner. We’re dying in meetings and studies; we have to do something,” Strickland said. “With the value of this school added to our experience, we can do a lot with the Pittsburgh Public Schools to benefit these students. Part of the idea is to utilize this space productively. This model that we’re creating here could be replicated.”
The partnership would aid the installment of a new early college model at Oliver, with a career and technical education program. The career academies set to begin in the 2012-2013 school year would include building trades, consumer sciences, health careers and business, finance, and information technology.
The early college option will give students the opportunity to earn up to two years of transferable college credits while in high school. The cosmetology and culinary arts programs are already running at Oliver and the building trades program is set to begin in the 2011-2012 school year.
Oliver Principal Dennis Chakey sees this as a perfect time to jump start academic opportunities at his school. He said his administration’s implementation of a homeroom period at the beginning of the school day, through which students can openly talk about issues affecting them outside of the school, has improved student behavior.
“We’re tired of looking at data and not seeing it move. We understand that there are a lot of things that go on in the community and during the first 90 minutes of the school day we talk about those things. They come in and it’s all talking about what can be done to help our kids,” Chakey said. “We have the discipline under control. From what we see everyday we have that family atmosphere here. We’ve built that sense of community here and now it’s on to academics. It’s been too long that North Side’s been forgotten.”
While academic standings continue to present a dire outlook, Oliver staff and outsiders say positive change is happening. While they admit they still have a long way to go academically, they contend that the environment has become more welcoming and supportive of students.
“At some point in the very recent past, this place was about getting a pay check, not helping kids. Before you would see that the adults weren’t visible to the kids,” said Derrick Lopez, assistant superintendent for secondary schools. “There was a girl whose whole family was arrested and she came to school the next day because of (this environment).”
Like Strickland, Jehru Donaldson was another Oliver success story. An honor roll student, Donaldson was newly graduated and on his way to attending college at Edinboro University when he was shot in June 2007. Today, his father Jay Donaldson, president of the Protecting and Restoring the Order of Mankind with the Initiative to Serving Elders Group, raises money for scholarships for Oliver students in memory of his son.
The Promise Group sees education as the key to breaking the cycle of Black-on-Black violence in the North Side. Donaldson, who attended Bidwell for carpentry, said the new partnership between Strickland and Oliver is a long over due and extremely positive opportunity for students in need.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea, something I think should have happened a long time ago,” Donaldson said. “I think it’s good for the community I think it’s good for Oliver. It’s something that’s needed. It’s something that’s been needed and I hope students take full advantage of it.”