Monthly Archives: December 2016

Sharon City School District’s Forum team focuses cultural changes 

A small group of students working with Sharon City School District’s Forum team last spring raised concerns about school safety and about their sense that students didn’t feel a strong connection with staff.

The concerns prompted the team to conduct a survey of the student body to determine how widespread the feelings might be. The intent was to gather data for changes that might improve overall school culture. sharon-city

Team-building activities that have been incorporated across grade levels already have brought about an uptick in communication between staff and students, according to Sharon City’s Forum participants.

Among other changes, the data also suggested that a bullying prevention program and a concerted effort to embed “integrity” through everyday actions represented good early steps.

Since then, Sharon City has become part of a Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) initiative that will broaden findings about cultural markers and do so across all stakeholders.

“We’re a pilot school in an initiative on school climate,” explained Dawn Blair, an Assistant Principal in the district and a Forum team member.

As part of it, the district is surveying parents and staff as well as students and using PDE’s more detailed questionnaire, giving the Forum team a larger data set, which will help create a needs assessment.

The district, in turn, will incorporate the information into its strategic plan.

Among other things, the PDE survey poses questions designed to gauge staff and student morale and any trends that may emerge across the different groups of stakeholders, Blair said.

PDE is hoping that the data will enable districts participating in the initiative to make positive changes, Blair added. “They want to look at whether change in climate can have an effect,” particularly on indicators of school safety, such as disciplinary referrals.

The Forum team is hoping to use survey findings to help “bring about a sense of community between student and teacher,” Blair said. “We want to make students more comfortable going to teachers if they have problems.”



Forum team brings student voice to bear on school culture

Pittsburgh Allderdice High School’s Forum team set out this year to harness student voice in service of overall school culture. After beginning late last spring with just a few kids who attended a Forum meeting in March, they’ve grown their group of participants to 35 and launched a couple of student-driven initiatives.

Interestingly, the students advocated for committees and projects to improve Allderdice that “overlap concerns of teachers and administration,” said Sarah Mueller, a chemistry and earth science teacher and Forum team member.The kids said they wanted to improve respect for school property, including cleanliness of hallways and restrooms. allderdiceAdditionally they suggested that a school store might improve school spirit and having peer tutors during study periods would improve the learning environment.

“They’re now working in their committees to put some of their ideas in motion,” Mueller said. Concurrently, the students and the Forum team await results of a school-wide survey conducted to see what other activities and committees the student body thinks are needed, she added.

While the Forum would like to increase participation in student activities, “we don’t want to be spinning our wheels on things they don’t think are important,” Mueller said.

Colleague Nikki Schmiedlin, a social studies teacher and also a Forum team member, said, “We didn’t feel there was enough student participation or accountability.” With students now trying to lead changes, “We want to keep the participation up and increase it,” she added.

Imaginary projects can help kids get a better sense of self

Ideas that emerge when teams of 8th graders are challenged to imagine and invent something the world needs are by turns fanciful, practical and everything in between.

But byproducts of the process are more the point. By bouncing their individual ideas around, coming to consensus and following through with a plan or prototype, students  find clues to their own identities.

That’s what happened when our College & Career Knowledge program took about 90 middle school kids from Clairton City, Greensburg Salem, McKeesport Area and Steel Valley school districts to Pitt Greensburg in December.

The kids worked in teams to develop products or services they believe the world needs and afterward, took surveys designed to help them understand what the project taught them about themselves. The exercise helped some see their leadership potential. Others discovered artistic impulses, analytical capabilities, or other characteristics that it’s important to know before choosing a career, or even a college major.

After working with a team that dreamed up a device for turning turn water into food to end world hunger, Jonathan, a middle school student in McKeesport Area School District, said, “I guess I learned that care about something,“ explaining that the project helped him realize people can work together to change things. “I used to just think that whatever happens, happens.”

Working on the same team, his classmate Austin said he realized “I took the lead as soon as we started.” It gave him inkling that he’s a take-charge type who can get teammates enthused and get them collaborating, he said.

Using the Holland Career Codes, which is designed to help people connect personal interests and attributes to careers, the kids each identified the two most dominant characteristics they brought to their projects. For Austin, who aspires to a career in science, the top two were being realistic and investigative, followed closely by being enterprising.

As for other projects, the kids’ let their imaginations roam. Just to name a few, they came up with portable wi-fi devices, shelters for animals affected by natural disasters and temperature-controlled shoes.

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TFIM leaders learn why “sustainability mindset” is becoming a workplace expectation

Advisors and student leaders from our career exploration program, The Future Is Mine (TFIM), came together in December for mid-year debriefings, planning for the annual Student Leadership Conference and a presentation on educational resources offered by the Green Building Alliance.


Teresa DeFlitch, Green Building Alliance

TFIM team leaders also exchanged ideas on everything from fundraising and recruitment to choosing the best projects and essential skills students need to learn to prepare for the workplace.

As part of TFIM, students take on team projects both to explore careers and build career-related skills, with particular emphasis on leadership.

The mid-year meeting for advisors and student leaders often features community partners that offer opportunities for career exploration. This year, Teresa DeFlitch Director of Learning and Innovation, discussed resources the Green Building Alliance offers schools.

In addition, DeFlitch told students that the sustainability movement not only offers promising careers of its own, it also offers pathways in other industries. Increasingly, a background in sustainability is something employers are seeking even in unrelated occupations, she said.

DeFlitch said that as industries of all kinds focus on recycling, conservation and other green practices, they’re looking for employees “with a sustainability mindset,” even for jobs not directly involved.


Clairton City emphasizing career exploration earlier

Like lots of districts, Clairton City had long considered senior projects the key to engaging students in making post-secondary plans. The problem was too many were treating the projects as just another assignment to finish, not an opportunity for exploration.


Clairton City’s Forum team

That’s why the district’s Forum team is working this year on interventions that not only would help kids gain a sense of direction, but begin thinking about it well before senior year.

“Our goal is for 90% of seniors to identify a career path before graduation,” said Guidance Counselor Maureen Shaw.

A centerpiece of the district’s strategy is a career pathway activity beginning ninth grade. As part of it, kids must identify career clusters of interest and examine specific careers within them, including the training needed, the job outlook, salaries and other information.

The senior project “was often a ‘hurry-up-and-get-it done thing’,” said Shaw. “We want students to look at careers earlier and we want the way they do it to be more meaningful. We feel senior year is really too late.”

Along with earlier and deeper explorations, the district is implementing some other supportive measures, including vocational aptitude testing for sophomores and a grade-point contest in the adult-student advisory sessions that Clairton initiated as part of the Consortium’s MAPS (My Action Plan for Success) initiative. Additionally, Clairton is strengthening its 339 Plan, a state mandated framework for ensuring students receive adequate career preparation.



Apprenticeship training centers offer alternative path

Like most kids, students from Clairton High School knew little if anything about the jobs Sprinklerfitters do before visiting Local 542’s  Pittsburgh training center. But after learning about their work, Ivori, a sophomore exploring post-secondary options, was excited—she thought she might like to do it herself. Not only did the prospect of “helping protect people from fires” hold appeal, she also said she liked the idea of a job where “I can work with my hands.”

Ivori was one of more than 90 students who explored opportunities for apprenticeship training in November as part of our College & Career Knowledge program.

During CCK’s latest session, three different crafts hosted visits so that students from four different schools got the chance to learn about apprenticeships in the building trades. Along with Sprinklerfitters Local 542, programs that opened their doors were the Laborers’ District Council of Western Pennsylvania training center in Saxonburg and Sheetmetal Workers Local 12 training center in Harmarville. Participating schools included Clairton City, Pittsburgh Brashear, Albert Gallatin Area and Yough high schools.

Like Ivori, Martay, a junior at Pittsburgh Brashear, said he was interested in learning about training that is “hands on,” adding “I’m not big on sitting in school.” Both he and his classmate, Andre, said they were really happy to find out how many apprenticeship programs the region offers and about the solid incomes journeymen in any of the building trades can expect to earn. Andre said he was hoping he might get to visit the training center for carpenters on an upcoming CCK session.

The region has 17 different apprenticeship training programs. Students visiting them never fail to be surprised to learn that, instead of paying for training, apprentices are paid for their work while they learn their crafts.


Lawrence County CTC marks gains in extracurricular participation and core academic skills


Lawrence County CTC’s Forum team

Lawrence County Career & Technical Center has seen a sharp increase in the number of students taking part in extra-curricular activities this year as well as in the number who are academically eligible. Both improvements owe a nod to an initiative a team of the CTC’s educators undertook as part of their work in The Forum

The Forum is a network the Consortium organizes to help educators develop leadership skills while pursuing projects that support high priority goals in their schools or districts.

One of Lawrence County CTC ‘s overarching goals has been inclusivity. In support of it, the school’s Forum team set out this year to get more students involved in extra-curricular activities and more on solid enough academic footing that they can participate, said Brad Windhorst, a math teacher and Forum team member.

Enlisting student voice was a critical factor in designing a successful initiative, he added. The biggest hurdle to expanding extracurricular participation seemed to be that the activities the CTC offered just didn’t hold wide appeal, Windhorst noted.

Before embarking on an overhaul, the Forum team used a student survey to find out what activities kids actually wanted. It then sought support from teachers to broaden the options for the current school year. The upshot is an extracurricular menu of 48 activities that now encompasses interests as disparate as cooking, classic movies, weightlifting and woodwork.

The Forum team set a goal of 75% participation, which aimed for all students who were academically eligible when the school year began. At the time, the other 25% were required to spend their free periods in study halls getting help to improve skills in one or more core academic courses.

As anticipated, tailoring the extracurricular offerings to address kids’ interests has helped attract eligible students–participation quickly hit the Forum team’s 75% goal.

But it’s also apparently served as an incentive to those whose academic performance was lagging when the school year started. As a result, some 92 percent of students are now both academically eligible to participate in extracurricular activities and also regularly doing so.

“It was amazing how dramatically the number changed,” Windhorst said, quickly adding that the Forum team’s work was just one of several factors driving improvement. Others included a new school Principal and a concerted effort the school is making to reinforce core academic lessons even in unrelated classes.