Propel schools closing racial achievement gap

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by Laurence Glasco

Doris Brevard, as principal of Vann Elementary School in the Hill District from 1969 to 1995, eliminated the racial achievement gap, winning statewide and even national recognition.

Some of those who still recall her success might be interested to know of schools today which are succeeding in doing the same.

propel
STUDENT AT WORK IN PROPEL

One of these is Propel Charter Schools, which soon will open in the city of Pittsburgh. Last spring, Propel Director of Marketing Derric Heck invited me to visit the Propel Charter School in McKeesport which, he said, was matching Brevard’s achievements of years ago, and with similar kinds of students.

I knew Derric from his previous stint as an architectural consultant, working to find ways to reuse the New Granada Theater in the Hill District. On the drive to Propel-McKeesport, I asked him why he had left his position as an architect to go into education. He replied that when he saw what the Propel schools were accomplishing, he felt he had found his calling, the chance to open opportunities for poor children to learn and progress. He said the high motivation and achievements of faculty, staff and students at Propel schools—whether in McKeesport, Montour, Homestead, Munhall, Turtle Creek, or Braddock Hills—made it a pleasure to go to work every day. Working there was like being paid for doing your hobby.

Just as Brevard demonstrated decades ago, Derric said, Propel Schools disproves the assumption that poor Black students cannot compete academically. In 1990, 91 percent of Brevard’s students at Vann met or exceeded national norms on standardized testing in math; today 90 percent of Propel-McKeesport students score proficient or advanced on state achievement tests. Their scores are virtually identical to those in Fox Chapel, Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair. That bears repeating: Local Propel students—predominantly poor and African-American—perform academically at the same level as the area’s most elite schools.

Located in a former Byzantine Catholic Church, the school’s atmosphere met and exceeded what Derric had described. From the staff at the front desk to the principal, superintendent, teachers and pupils, one could quickly sense the pride, dedication, focus, enthusiasm and learning taking place throughout this K-8 school. I hesitate to string those adjectives together because in our jaded world such terms provoke deep skepticism. Yet, as an educator myself, that is what I saw and experienced.

In each classroom, I walked around with a student guide, inspecting student work, asking questions, and taking pictures. Students would look up from their tasks and explain briefly what they were doing, then return to their work, apparently because what they were doing was more interesting than just gazing at this intruder. Even more impressive—this was the last week of school, with only one more day left!

What struck me most was that students were on task and enjoying it. They worked at projects in math, in reading, in writing. They posted some amazing art on the walls. They constructed a model of the rides at Kennywood. They laid out a large 3-D floor model of the United States, done to scale, with colors denoting vegetation and bodies of water. Some classes were meeting and working in the halls. Everywhere there was activity—and learning—taking place. Activity but not noise, and certainly not the sort of pandemonium one can easily find among large groups of very young kids.

I guess the best I can say is that if I had a kid of school age, I would be thrilled to have him or her attend Propel McKeesport. This was an excellent school to which parents of any race or economic background would want to send their kids. And they do. The interracial character of the school was notable, with White pupils seemingly making up a third, possibly more, of the students. The current principal, Tina Chekan, is White; the incoming principal, Hampton Conway, is African-American.

My one concern came in a visit to the 8th grade classroom. The girls in the room all seemed happy and busy but the two boys in the room, seated together at a table, had that bored, distracted look of adolescent males that signals a disconnect with learning. Perhaps they were a symptom of this being the last week of class. Or perhaps a sign of how much more difficult it can be to reach and teach adolescents, who now are becoming more aware of their environment outside school and succumb to peer pressures.

On the way back, Derric gave me one piece of really bad news that tied in with my concern about those two boys. By state law, Propel graduates will not have “first dibs” at attending a Propel high school when they open. Derric worries that students will come out of Propel ready to move forward only to be set back in high school. I thought to myself: how can that be?

Other questions persist, equally baffling. If Doris Brevard and the Propel Charter Schools have shown that the racial achievement gap can be eliminated, regardless of socio-economic background of the pupils, why has this hopeful message not sunk in? Why do we still operate on the assumption that only students from middle-class, education-oriented backgrounds can learn? Why haven’t the examples of Brevard and Propel produced a groundswell demanding that all schools match their results?

(Laurence Glasco PhD, is an associate professor, History Department, University of Pittsburgh.)

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