Homewood’s struggling Faison Elementary School has been restructured by a number of reform initiatives over the years. Despite these efforts, data from the 2008 Pennsylvania System of State Assessment tests, showed scores in reading, math, and writing among 5th grade students at Faison were the lowest in western Pennsylvania.

Throughout the 2011-2012 school year, the long troubled school underwent perhaps its most successful wave of reform yet, this time led by the school’s teachers. While some await the results of this year’s PSSA tests to determine the initiative’s success, a trip to the school and conversations with Faison’s teachers, students and administrators tells the real story.

ROAR—Third grade classes with teachers, from left: Janice Motley, Ayesha Thomas-Tunstalle and Stacey Burg. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“The changes I’ve seen is that last year there were many students running in the hallways,” said Dao Owens, a fifth grade student, a few weeks before the school year ended. “This year people are prepared; they stay in class and they don’t skip.”

As a turnaround school, Faison’s reform is being funded by a $927,960 grant from the Fund for Excellence and a $399,947 School Improvement Grant. The first step in the turnaround process began last May with converting the school from a K-8 to a K-5 and hiring a new principal.

“The difference between this year and last year is our principal; she gives us consequences and reminds us we can do good,” said Shawn McGinester, another 5th grade student. “(Our teachers) give us stories of people who have done good things in their life and tell us we can be like them. Last year our teachers said they cared, but they show it more now. The teachers we have now are bringing a whole new level of understanding to us.”

Once a week, the students at Faison begin their day with a grade-wide assembly. This new approach serves as a time for teachers to update students on how they are progressing and showcase positive student behavior.

On the morning of May 31, students from the third grade filed into the hallway outside of their classrooms where they sat in neatly filed lines. On that day, Faison Principal LouAnn Zwieryznski was also there to greet the students and listen as the 3rd grade teachers shared positive gains their classes have made.

“These stories make me happy to be the principal at Faison,” Zwieryznski said to the students “At the beginning of the school year, you didn’t know all of the expectations, but you got better.”

Last August, after replacing more than 50 percent of Faison’s teachers, Zwieryznski put her new staff to work weeks earlier than many others, in order to begin laying the foundation for the school’s new direction. Among the teacher’s new ideas were the weekly assemblies and a new motto: ROAR, which stands for respectful, on task, appropriate, and responsible.

“Every grade level has an assembly. We believe that effort creates ability. By having the assemblies, you recognize growth. It’s a public celebration. We want kids to open up their learning. It’s called, making learning public,” Zwieryznski said. “I can walk into a classroom and yell at the entire class for what 10 students have done wrong, or I can celebrate the 10 kids who did something right. The other thing it teaches students is hard work matters. It puts the responsibility back on students.”

Zwieryznski’s goal is for Faison to be a 90-90-90 school. This designation is given to schools where in addition to having a population where 90 percent of the students are African-American, 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and 90 percent of the students are also proficient in reading and math.

“To change a culture, it takes three to five years. Do I think it’s been successful? We’ve absolutely seen growth,” Zwieryznski said. “We’re using a positive accountability program to bring accountability to students. I think as kids have seen the expectations we have for them, we’ve seen a real culture of learning develop.”

Despite the positive gains made at Faison and the hard work done by the teacher’s there, the Pittsburgh Public School District will furlough 23 Faison teachers next year due to cuts, 50 to 60 percent of the teaching staff. While many at the school worry Faison will lose some of its best teachers due to lack of seniority, others hope the model they’ve put in place will allow the school to continue to grow.

“They said, lets put the best possible teachers in front of our students and let them move the way forward. My job was to lead the process by which the teachers lead the school. Eighty percent of this design work is about putting a good teacher in front of every student, everyday. There was a rigorous selection process and the teachers who came here, wanted to be here,” said Jake House, the school’s design director. “Obviously you want the team who came here and created this to be in place, but you want it to be able to function with any group.”

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