The decorated, wooden sign displayed outside of the principal’s office with the inscription of three words: Dream, Believe and Achieve, are just a few of the words that sum up the principles the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School shares with its students on a daily basis. While the school, located in East Liberty, may be small, the love and compassion for its students and the sense of pride in one’s culture that fills the hallways is far greater than the largest building that anyone could build.

I CAN SPELL IT—One of the Urban League Charter School’s kindergarten classes practices the words they have learned how to spell.(Photos by J.L. Martello)

“We do a lot to help our children be the very best person they can be, not just as a scholar, but as a person, because there is so much more to learn,” said Gail Edwards, CEO and principal of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School. “We’re uniquely wonderful because of who we are and our history is critical to what we do. I think our school has the richest history of any.”

The Urban League Charter School, which opened in 1998 under the direction of principal Janet Bell, is a Middle States Commission on Elementary Schools accredited school for students in kindergarten through fifth grade with a mission to provide superior education that will develop their students’ academic excellence, leadership skills and high social values to enable them to become positive contributors to their communities.

“Our overall approach (at the charter school) is one like that of the Urban League, we meet people where they are and show them where they can go,” said Esther Bush, CEO and president of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. “We’re making our children academically prepared and giving them a competitive edge for the future. We set high expectations for our students and teach them that there is no cap on their abilities.”

She said the school was created because of the Urban League’s rich history for education and to fill the achievement gap between African-Americans and other ethnicities in the areas of science and math.

The charter school, which follows the curriculum set forth by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, enrolls 230 students from school districts such as Pittsburgh, Woodland Hills, Penn Hills and Wilkinsburg, just to name a few. There are currently two classes of each grade level and according to the school’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessment results for 2010-2011, provided by the school, reading and math scores for students in grades 3-5 had percentages at or above that of the state’s scores.

Besides the traditional math, science and reading courses, Urban League Charter School also offers music lessons taught by the Pittsburgh Chamber Society and students from Duquesne University; a drama program; an anti-bullying program, where students are given scenarios and then discuss them with trained individuals to see how they would and should react; a pre-literacy program, where parents with 4-year-olds can learn how to teach their children to read; and two mentoring programs, R.E.A.C.H., which is for young men, and Girls Rock, which is for young ladies, where they learn leadership skills and about their history and culture. Students also attend several academic based field trips and fifth graders also participate in the Leadership Luncheon program, where they have successful guest speakers come and talk to them, all while learning proper etiquette.

Chauleaqua Washington, a senior at City High Charter School and former graduate of the Urban League Charter School, said, “My experience at Urban League (School) was amazing. Not only was I able to make friends and learn what I needed, they made the environment around me comfortable. Going to this school made me culturally enriched.” After graduation, Washington plans to attend Carlow University, where she will major in communications and minor in psychology. “I am proud to say that I came from that school and what I have come to be is just a good reflection on their school,” she said.

What also makes the school unique, besides the extended school year, are the uniforms, which consist of African kente cloth vests or their new addition of blazers; the requirement of 30 hours of volunteer time from parents; annual home visits conducted by teachers; and the fact that report cards aren’t sent home with students, but are required to be picked up by parents, so that they have an opportunity to engage with the teacher and discuss their child’s progress.

But Edwards, who has been in education for 43 years and head of the school for 10, said it’s the acknowledgement of the African-American culture that makes them stand out from other schools. “We acknowledge and teach about our tradition and our heritage. And other schools don’t. But most importantly we acknowledge ‘that you (the students) are African-Americans and the contributions from our people. And that you are standing on their shoulders and need to do what you need to do to be the best young person you can be,’” she said, and added that they do not ignore other cultures, they just emphasize the culture of their students and why they should understand and be proud of whom they are.

In order to attend the school, parents must complete the application process. Children looking to be enrolled in kindergarten must complete a readiness test and then students are chosen by a lottery, with siblings of already admitted students being automatically selected, then students from the city and then everyone else. Edwards said one parent waited almost two years to have their child selected.

“There’s a contention between charter and public schools. They wish we’d go away and we’re not. The bottom line is parents wanted a choice,” said Edwards.

While the Pittsburgh Public Schools are closing schools due to low attendance, the Urban League Charter School is seeing an increase in parents seeking admission. But although their list of applicants is growing, their limited space is not. Edwards said the school is only equipped to handle 230, but there are talks between the Urban League and charter school boards as to whether there will be an expansion in the school’s future.

But one thing the school is anticipating is cuts to the school’s budget. Charter schools are funded through tuition, which is paid for by the school districts that the students live in, and grants. As the state cuts education funding, the schools have to trim their budgets and that includes how much is provided to the charter schools. “We’re going to work diligently to make sure we can do the best job here with what we have,” said Edwards.

Bush and Edwards both credit the school’s success to the fact that they are a hands-on institution, with dedicated teachers and staff, and “because we’re passionate about the importance of helping to make our African-American scholars successful,” said Edwards. They also credit the school’s board.

“The board of directors continues to nurture, foster and be supportive of the goals of the school. They make sure Gail and the teachers have what they need,” said Bush. What is

unique about the school’s board is that it makes sure there is continued parental input, which includes the president of the Parent Teacher Association and one parent who is selected. Bush also credits Edwards, by saying she continues to be invested in her students. “It’s everyone working together,” she added.

“We may not have the biggest space in the world and I don’t have a fancy place, but what you will find is a lot of love and concern for these children. It’s about making a difference,” said Edwards. For more information on the school, call 412-361-1008.

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