Graduate Pittsburgh fights for diplomas

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The teachers, school administrators and non-profit organizations working with Graduate Pittsburgh don’t just meet to talk about the dropout rate on a broad scale. They actually work every day to ensure Pittsburgh’s 12th graders will graduate in June.

The Graduate Pittsburgh Committee is a group headed by Communities in Schools, the nation’s largest stay-in-school network working in dropout prevention. The committee’s Immediate Intervention Action Group works directly with seniors at Westinghouse High School and Peabody High School, where more than half of the students still haven’t met their graduation requirements. The graduation rate for Westinghouse is 83 percent, and Peabody is 72 percent compared to Pittsburgh Public Schools’ 85 percent.

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COMMUNITY PARTNERS—Front from left: Florence Rouzier, executive director of the Crossroads Foundation and District 2 School Board Representative Dara Ware Allen, executive director, YouthWorks. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“This is just the beginning but right now we’re really focused on those 12th graders. But we need to get those 11th graders on track now. We are committed as a team to making sure every kid in Peabody and Westinghouse is going to graduate,” said Stephen MacIsacc, director, Wireless Neighborhoods. “There are a lot of kids at the schools. There are a lot of kids who are disengaged and I think the district is doing the most it can to get the highest percentage through.”

At the bi-yearly meeting on April 21 at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, the Graduate Pittsburgh Committee’s four action groups shared their progress on the Community Action Plan. They also hear from Horacio Sanchez who is the president of Resiliency Inc. and education consulting company.

“Set goals to keep kids from being bored. Stop saying you want parent involvement and start getting it in positive ways so that if something happens the experience won’t be negative,” Sanchez said. “Teach students that they have the power to make their life infinitely better.”

Sanchez’s presentation addressed parent involvement, student engagement and how to keep issues outside of school from affecting students when they’re in school.

“For a lot of kids, some of the people they idolize, most didn’t value education or left school. Their brains start to see all the people who were fine without it,” Sanchez said. “Many of us take on challenges in the presence of others who care because it helps us overcome them. One of the best stabilizers for adolescents is relationships.”

The committee’s Behavioral Support/Policy Issues Action Group has been looking at how to sustain Graduate Pittsburgh’s work for future generations of students in the region.

“We’re all here because of a common problem, but the solution is going to be different based on the school district. Look at the policies in your district that have unintended consequences on students, that puts them at risk for dropping out,” said Mayada Mansour, program director, A+ Schools. “Yes it’s important to work on the short term every day, but we also have to look at the long term and how this is going to be sustained.”

The Engaging Student Voice Action Group, led by Stephen Zumbrun, deputy youth policy manager at the City of Pittsburgh, have spent their time talking with youth about the reasons they dropout of schools.

“They felt unsafe. They felt unsupported. They felt like people weren’t there. And as we know, that’s not true,” Zumbrun said. “There’s a lot of help out there.”

As a solution to the problems found by Zumbrun’s group, the Raising Awareness Action Group is working on making sure students are aware of resources and can be easily connected to them.

“We need to have data on what’s working and why it’s affective. Across the country schools are behind in science and math. Every school needs help,” said Joe Welsh, United Way. “Forty-seven percent of students who dropped out said it was because they were not engaged.”

The group also heard from Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center who gave them insight into education policy at the state level.

“Only in Pennsylvania, and I think in Washington, do our kids not have to go to school until they’re eight,” Cowell said. “This current budget that’s proposed by the Governor would take away a billion dollars from school districts. What is most awful is it’s mostly hurting poor kids and kids of color.”

Graduate Pittsburgh plans to hold their next meeting in November.

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