The last year has brought many changes for the first charter school in the Pittsburgh area—a new name and building. While Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, formerly Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, has changed their look and brand, their dedication to and vision for educating and developing successful African American boys and girls remains the same.
In 2015, the school, which was founded in 1998 by its former namesake, the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh–known for its focus on African American culture, traditions and history while teaching children a model of character education—parted ways with the organization to expand its educational opportunities and the reach of African American students, according to Gail Edwards, EdD, CEO and president of Urban Academy.
“The biggest issue for the current board was that they felt strongly that in order for the school to grow and survive, it needed to become an independent school so that we could seek funding, our own foundation and our own home.” Edwards said. “We are always, forever grateful that the Urban League started our school; they’re the founders and no one can erase that, we acknowledge that, but the school needed to grow. It was at a standstill. Attorneys and finance people had come to the board and said, ‘If you don’t move forward, you’re not going to exist.’ I think this board looked at every aspect of all that made a difference for the school.”
She also explained that the school had to listen to the parents, who were also requesting growth.
The K-5 school that was once located on North Negley Avenue, in East Liberty, and now resides at 437 Turrett St., in Larimer, the former Abraxas Pittsburgh School, opened its doors to students for the start of the 2016-2017 school year. The new building offers the charter school 10,000 more square feet than its previous one, and more comfort for its students, teachers, instructional aides and administrators.
According to Urban Academy’s Business Manager K. Chase Patterson, the school’s new space, which has approximately 223 students, but can accommodate 360 once the third-floor is renovated, offers two classrooms for each grade and has an average class size of 17. It also has state-of-the-art classrooms that consist of AQUOS Boards, an interactive whiteboard that includes a computer, a projector and educational software, all in one; more preparation and relaxation space for teachers, a critical need with the school’s extended-day curriculum; and allows for the improvement of their education process.
“More space allows for more students, more students allows for more revenue. We were just unable to see more students in our former building,” Patterson said. “We have a board that understands that every decision they make, positively or negatively, impacts our students. And they have done a very good job over the last two years of making the right decisions for our kids.”
Also new this year is its partnership with Wright Childcare Solutions, operated by Brittini Wright-Burley, which offers daycare and pre-K, as well as extended day, early drop-off and afterschool programs, right inside their building. A win-win for both parties, as Patterson sees it.
“We were certain there was a need among our families,” he said. “We also saw it as a good business decision to develop an immediate pipeline for our kindergarten program. And then, lastly, the community asked for it. When we were vetting the idea of coming here, to Larimer, we met with the Larimer Consensus Group and Ed Gainey’s office, partners of ours, and we heard from them that, ‘we need a daycare in the community, we need a preschool in the community.’”
Wright-Burley said the experience has been wonderful for her as well. “It’s good because the school gives me a clientele that’s already here, in terms of an extended-day program, which means we can focus on quality education and accreditations for our pre-school and day care.”
Along with its curriculum that aligns with Pennsylvania’s Common Core Standards and focus on teaching students their history in African American cultures and traditions, the school offers a number of clubs and activities, such as Peace Makers, Reading is Fundamental, National Elementary Honor Society, Chess Club, String Instrumental Music Lessons, and Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh for fifth graders, which is presented by Pittsburgh Mercy Health Systems and allows students to learn the various ballroom dancing techniques, and compete against Pittsburgh Public Schools in the area. They have been finalists for both the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years. Students will compete Dec. 17 at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School.
When asked what makes Urban Academy stand out from other area schools, Edwards said, “It’s a combination of a dedicated staff and a belief in African American children, from your heart. We have staff that if a child needs, they’re out buying it… It’s not just teaching, a lot of people can teach, but you have to love the children you’re working with.”
She added, “Our parents believe in what we do and so many schools struggle with our African American students. They’re not, necessarily, getting the education that they need to. Because, first of all, you have to acknowledge who they are and from whence they’ve come. So their culture, our traditions, that’s all very important in the scheme of everything. There are not other schools like us. And I think, for us, that concern is from the beginning––to see African American children achieve and challenge themselves, and to do really well.
Angelique Drakeford, one of the school’s third-grade teachers who has been there for seven years, also believes in what they do. She said its not only Urban Academy’s academic achievements that makes them stand out, but their programming as well.
“I think we set the expectations high here, definitely reachable, and just let them know that ‘you can achieve it and you will achieve it. That’s a really big thing for us,” she said. “It’s as simple as our morning program, it’s important everyday, from singing ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ to the school pledge. Just starting their day off with positivity.”
But it’s not only the teachers and staff who enjoy the school, the students do too. They recognize the love for them that Edwards spoke of and that fills the hallways.
Fifth grade Honor Society student Senai Pelmon, 10, said, “They take care of us and love us, just like we are their kids.” She also said she feels her school offers a better education and opportunities than other schools.
Padro May, 9, of Penn Hills and in the fourth grade, echoed Pelmon’s thoughts saying, “I like that the teachers treat us like we’re their own children so they don’t want us to get hurt or be bad in school.” He also said he enjoys the education and that there are multiple clubs, so there is something for everybody.
As a testament to the work of Edwards and her staff, when asked what the students would change about the school, Pelmon, May and fifth-grader Damon Johnson, 12, of Penn Hills, said they would make their classes in subjects––math, science and social studies––longer.
As for the school’s future, Edwards said while there may be some expansions down the line, the main focus is on continuing to provide a quality education and instill self-worth in the students so that they may not only go on to successfully compete as they further their education, but in life as well.
She said, “We’re always going to challenge them to be the very best that they can be.”
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