On Feb. 22, the Pittsburgh Public School District Board of Directors voted to accept a $1 million grant from the Heinz Endowments. The grant’s first component has been to bring in national urban education expert Pedro Noguera, who will be helping to ensure a smooth transition in the fall merger of Oliver High School and Perry High School.

UNITY DAY—Perry/Oliver staff member Dion Dupree takes a shot while Pittsburgh Steelers player Charlie Batch (16) looks on. (Photo by William McBride)

“Our goal is to learn about the school and that started today,” said Noguera a few hours before a community meeting at Perry on March 22. “The goal is to introduce them so they know who we are and what we’re doing.”

Noguera is the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, a New York University based center that focuses on educational research, policy, and practice. He has assisted in similar efforts in states including New York, New Jersey and Colorado.

“The challenges are always related to getting the adults on the same page. Then you have to do a lot of work with the students so they see that it’s one school,” Noguera said. “Communicating with parents if you go through students is not always reliable. I think working with community groups helps.”

Transition activities began in February and continued through March when Pittsburgh City Council declared March 7 Perry/Oliver Unity Day. That evening, staff from both North Side schools teamed up to take on players from the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Unity Day basketball game.

“There’s some degree of unease,” Noguera said. “I know the principal here has been doing a lot with students, by building a sense of community and working to make them feel it’s one school. It’s not as though these are so distant or estranged communities.”

Another, and perhaps larger component of the $1 million Heinz grant will be efforts to increase equity and reduce the racial achievement gap. Noguera will be paid $80,000 for a five-month contract running from March 1 to August 21.

“Beyond the transition, there’s the larger question of academic performance and the students at Oliver weren’t doing well,” Noguera said. “When schools are really focused on internal instruction, when there’s a level of accountability, it’s critical.”

Oliver students have been going through an orientation to prepare them for the merger. Groups of 15 students are brought to Perry where they work with the school’s counselor and have discussions with Perry students. Oliver’s 9th graders have already gone through the orientation.

Other unity efforts have included merging the high schools’ dance and drill teams, as well as the school musical bands. The schools have also created a new logo of a yin- yang sign with a paw print to represent Oliver and a star to represent Perry.

“They’re visual representations, but it’s individualizing something. It shows that we care and shows there’s value in what they’re doing and we care about what they have to say,” said Perry Principal Nina Sacco. “There’s a lot of little things. I think it’s really important because it’s a reminder that we are welcoming. Students are excited about the opportunities they will have. Everyone’s tone has been positive.”

Future efforts include staff activities planned for the summer and a community day planned for June. Staffing decisions will not be made until late summer.

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