In 2009 at Independence High School in Columbus, Ohio 84.5 percent of the students attending the overwhelmingly African-American school were proficient in reading. Here in Pittsburgh the outlook is not as bright as the most recent test scores for the Pittsburgh Public School District showed that only 33.8 percent of African-American students are proficient in reading.

CLOSING THE GAP—Principal Christopher Qualls shows how his school’s attendance has risen over the past decade. (Photos by Rossano P. Stewart)

“This school features some of the same challenges we find here in the city of Pittsburgh,” said Jerome Taylor, executive director of the Center for Family Excellence. “The kids are proficient at levels that would startle and please you.”

Unfortunately schools like Independence High are the exception and not the rule. In an effort to close the racial achievement gap between Black and White students, Taylor, who is a University of Pittsburgh professor, organized a speaker series featuring principals from high achieving, predominantly African-American schools.

“We are gifted to have principals who are in communities facing some of the same things we are,” Taylor said. “All those principals spend an enormous amount of time in their schools. They spend more time in the classroom than the national average. They spend personal time with the students.”

At the final session of this season’s DAME-DAME Outstanding Schools Series on Jan. 20, Taylor welcomed Independence High Principal Christopher Qualls. In order to be designated as a DAME-DAME school, 75 percent of the students must be African-American and come from low-income families. Seventy-five percent of the students must also be proficient in reading or math on state assessment tests.

“What you see evolving today is curriculum that is designed for the standards,” Qualls said. “That’s the game we have to play. I’m going to learn the rules and I’m going to help my kids perform.”

Independence High uses the High Schools That Work model, which is used by more than 1,200 schools in 30 states. The model is designed to provide multiple programs of study through college-preparatory curriculum and career or technical training that prepare students for postsecondary studies and careers. Qualls emphasized his school’s mission of having high expectations for each and every student.

“If you’re going to reach each student, you can’t just do it in a cookie cutter fashion. You don’t get to each kid by excluding some kids,” Qualls said. “Personalization is huge for us. What we’re saying is we’re trying to have an individualized education plan for every student in two years.”

The majority of those in attendance were Pitt students studying education. A few concerned citizens and school administrators like Rhonda Taliaferro, assistant to the deputy PPS superintendent, attended to engage in discussion about the future of education.

“When we talk about education and the direction it’s going, it’s very dynamic; it’s very global. I think education needs to be going that route,” Taliaferro said. “We need to be educating student to think about that.”

The two other schools featured earlier in this season’s series were Franklin Square Elementary where the proficiency in reading is 94.6 percent and KIPP Ujima Village Academy where the proficiency in reading is 88 percent. Both schools are located in Baltimore.

Pittsburgh also has three DAME-DAME recognized schools: Pittsburgh Lincoln, Pittsburgh Fulton and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School. All three schools are at the bronze award level, which means 75 percent of their Black students are proficient in reading or math.

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