CYNTHIA BATTLE (Photos by Gail Manker)
When Jolanda Carr’s two sons entered elementary school, they were already regularly misbehaving in class and difficult to discipline. However, with the help of OnTRACK, a program designed to help troubled youth, Carr’s sons’ behavior changed.
“Their behavior in kindergarten was just off the chart. That’s where the OnTRACK youth development specialist came in,” Carr said. “I was constantly getting calls—‘your son has been suspended; you have to come get him.’ So without OnTRACK, I might not have a job right now.”
OnTRACK was one of several programs highlighted as part of the Graduate Pittsburgh Summit at Hosanna House on April 22. The initiative works to increase the high school graduation rate in Allegheny County.
In line with this year’s focus on early indicators, OnTrack works with students at an early age in grades K-8 to reduce behaviors that lead to suspension before they lead to students dropping out high school. The organization’s youth development specialists, who work in the Woodland Hills and McKeesport school districts, focus on the philosophy of positive discipline to get to the root causes of bad behavior.
“The first few years when my sons came into my life were hard for them and that’s where the negative behavior was coming from,” Carr said.
The mission of the Graduate Pittsburgh Summit was to increase awareness of best practices and indicators of drop out risk factors. The event highlighted collaborations between schools, youth, parents, youth-serving organization, the community, government, and business.
Student behavior, such as that addressed by OnTRACK, kindergarten readiness, and attendance were the three early indicators discussed by a group of panelists. Communities in Schools of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County, a non-profit dropout prevention program that offers in-school programs, after-school programs, and alternative learning academies organized the event.
“I wanted it to be something that was practical and hands on so participants would have something tangible to take back to their school district or organization,” said CIS Executive Director Cindy Shafer.
Another program highlighted at the event was the Homewood Early Learning Experience Network, an early childhood education program connected to the Homewood Children’s Village, a community initiative aimed at transforming educational, health, social service, and physical conditions in the neighborhood.
“In the low income community, children don’t hear a lot of language. It’s usually, ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘don’t do that’. These children don’t go to museums,” said Cynthia Battle, who leads the organization’s community outreach. “It’s not that these parents don’t love their children but they’re busy worrying about paying their bills.”
Battle, who worked for 17 years with the literacy organization Beginning with Books, said the early stages of a child’s development is crucial to their education later in life. She works going door-to-door and visiting home daycare centers to increase awareness of this connection.
“When you see a parent years later and they say you were right, you know these programs can work,” Battle said. “It’s good to see some of the children who are in high school and college now.”
The event was sponsored by EDMC-The Art Institute of Pittsburgh in partnership with a committee of organizations, school, and government offices.