Monthly Archives: September 2017

New Board member is TFIM alumnus 

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s top aide has joined the Consortium’s Board. Austin Davis, who serves as Fitzgerald’s Executive Assistant, comes to the Consortium with a background in government and administration as well as personal experience in one of our flagship programs.

In his current post, Mr. Davis monitors legislative implementation, represents the County Executive on various boards and authorities and serves as his liaison with municipal elected officials.

Austin Davis

Now running for a seat in the state House of Representatives, Mr. Davis identified himself as an advocate for public education in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s coverage  of his campaign launch.

A McKeesport High School graduate, he had an early interest in politics and set his sights on a career in public service after a job-shadow with the individual who served as Executive Assistant during former County Executive Dan Onoroto’s tenure. Davis obtained the job shadowing opportunity through The Future Is Mine (TFIM), the Consortium’s career exploration and leadership development program for high school students. His belief in the program is such that he has since served as a workplace site visit host during TFIM’s annual Student Leadership Conference.

Mr. Davis earned his degree in Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He has received numerous awards and recognitions for his work in government and the community. In addition to being recognized as one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s 40 under 40 roster of young leaders, he has been honored with the McKeesport NAACP Character Leadership Award, the New Pittsburgh Courier’s FAB 40 Award, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Gentleman of Excellence in Government Award, Champion Enterprise’s Public Service Award and CEA’s Community Builder Award.



PBL vets bring insights to training session

Teachers experienced in Project-Based Learning (PBL) shared insights with old-hands and novices alike this month when some 20 educators gathered at the Consortium for training or a refresher on PBL basics.

Recalling his own plunge into the method, Blackhawk High School environmental science teacher Rob Puskas told attendees, “My first year was a mess.”

“I had to ask myself, ‘Am I doing Project-Based Learning? Am I kind of doing it? Or am I not doing it at all’?”

Robert Puskas, Blackhawk High School

Although there’s definitely a learning curve, Puskas said it’s one any teacher can successfully navigate. For his part, he’s found so much benefit in PBL, he’s using it more and more in his classroom.

According to Buck Institute, a recognized authority, PBL is “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

Some teachers at the training session were learning or brushing up on technique in anticipation of leading projects as part of our Student Powered Solutions program. Others just wanted to get their feet wet or increase their facility with PBL.

PBL seems to bring out strengths from kids of different abilities and skills, said South Fayette High School teacher Tom Isaac, even if it’s sometimes a challenge for teachers.

Tom Isaac, South Fayette High School

For kids, Isaac explained, working on team projects usually means there’s a role for everyone. While the math whiz might perform calculations associated with a project, a kid who’s good with his hands might make a prototype.

While it gives students a chance to shine based on strengths, it turns the classroom upside down for teachers. One oft cited way of looking at the practice is that it turns a teacher into “a guide at the side”  instead of “a sage on the stage.”

Both Isaac and Puskas reassured novices that PBL also gives teachers a powerful approach for engaging students.

That may be one reason it’s been gaining adherents. Another is that  PBL not only helps kids apply and reinforce academic skills, it also helps them develop soft or transferrable skills that studies show can be even more critical to success both in school and in the workplace.


Meet our new intern!

Frank Kamara

Frank Kamara, an Associate from Public Allies Pittsburgh has joined the Consortium as an intern. He began this month and will work until June on the Refugee Youth Employment Project , which we offer in collaboration with Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, and on Be A Middle School Mentor, which we’re rolling out in three districts this year in collaboration with United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Kamara joined Public Allies Pittsburgh, which Coro Pittsburgh runs as the local affiliate of a national social justice organization, to gain experience in the nonprofit sector with a view toward one day starting a homeless shelter in Georgia, his home state, to offer holistic services to entire families. Public Allies and its local affiliate work in partnership with AmeriCorps and match their associates with nonprofits for field experience.

Born in Sierra Leone when his father worked  for UNICEF in West Africa, Kamara grew up in Atlanta, where he emigrated at age 7 and graduated with honors from high school.  After landing an athletic scholarship, he began pursuing his degree in electronic engineering and technology at Georgia’s Fort Valley State University. Summer breaks from Fort Valley found him volunteering with an Atlanta homeless shelter run by Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless.

Now on a leave from college, he said it was his experience at the shelter, where he provided case management services and started a rooftop garden, that stimulated his interest in nonprofits and one day starting a shelter himself.  New career direction notwithstanding, Kamara said he plans no switch of majors because “I still love science and math.”







Three district partners to work with CMU’s BrainHub

Students from three of our partnering districts visited one of Carnegie Mellon University’s BrainHub laboratories in early October in anticipation of analyzing data that scientists there are generating to show how experience changes the brain. They’ll be trying to form conclusions and hypotheses by looking at data being collected from experiments with mice.

As part of a pilot project that the Consortium facilitated, talented science students from Allegheny Valley, Clairton and Laurel Highlands school districts  visited the lab after attending in an invitation-only BrainHub Symposium on October 3.  Symposium discussions focused on teenage brain development and the effect it has on learning, decision-making, risk-taking ,creativity and mindfulness, among other things.

Following the symposium, the students toured labs involved in BrainHub research led by Professor Alison Barth. In the coming weeks, they’ll work at their home schools with CMU graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to analyze data coming from the labs. Later in the year, the students will return to CMU to make presentations from their findings.

CMU graduate student shows images of mice brains

“This kind of connection between schools and our region’s rich learning resources is something we’ve been working toward with multiple partners and through multiple programs” said the Consortium’s Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak.

Participating schools also are anxious to find partnerships that connect students and teachers with the world outside the classroom. Such partnerships not only provide  opportunities to apply classroom learning, they also give kids a window on different careers and working environments as well as opportunities to observe and practice the transferrable skills that are critical to future success.

We’re very excited about the opportunity for our district and students to partner with CMU’s BrainHub,” said Laurel Highlands Curriculum Director Randy Miller.  “It will provide real world application of learned science skills to our students as they work through the identified data.”



Nominate someone today for our annual Champions of Learning Awards 


If you know individuals, organizations or businesses creating or supporting outstanding learning opportunities for students in western Pennsylvania, we want to hear from you! We’re now accepting nominations for our 2018 Champions of Learning Awards celebration.

We’re looking for candidates in six categories: Arts, Business Partnerships, Community Partnerships, Leadership, Teaching and Volunteerism. Nominations are due no later than Wednesday, November 15 and should be submitted via our online application form. 

Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory at Mathematica Policy Research kicks off Career Readiness initiative

It’s always exciting to kick off a new school year, but even more so when you’re heading into it with a great new collaborator like the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory at Mathematica Policy Research.

Under a five-year federal contract, Mathematica Policy Research is operating the REL serving Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. It’s one of 10 regional RELs nationwide, all part of the Institute of Education Sciences operated by the U.S. Department of Education.

To begin identifying specific topics where it can provide research and/or technical support, the Mid-Atlantic REL is forming working groups around seven important areas of focus for schools. Among them is a Career Readiness Alliance based in southwestern Pennsylvania. Other alliances are being formed around family engagement; personalized learning; school support and improvement; early education; educator training and support; and accountability. 

In July, a handful of representatives from southwestern Pennsylvania schools and the local business community met at the Consortium to begin brainstorming ideas for the Alliance’s work.

To learn more about the Career Readiness Alliance or any of the Mid-Atlantic REL’s six other areas of focus just visit the REL’s web page about its partnerships.



Be a middle school mentor in the mon valley

There are more than a thousand kids in our region looking for mentors. Mentoring can change lives, so helping any one of them is a way you can make a difference!

Please consider volunteering as little as an hour of your time each week during the school year to help a middle school student in Clairton, McKeesport Area or Woodland Hills school district stay motivated about school, think about the future and find direction.  

We’re collaborating with United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania to extend the highly successful Be a Middle School Mentor program to these Mon Valley districts because it has proven so effective since its launch eight years ago in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

All mentoring sessions take place at school. In Clairton, mentors meet with kids immediately after school on Mondays. In McKeesport Area, sessions are at lunch time on Tuesdays and, in Woodland Hills, mentors and students get together after school on Thursdays.

For more information, call Consortium Program Director Gina Barrett at 412-352-3635 or to volunteer, fill out this online application.

If you don’t live close enough to our Mon Valley districts, or simply can’t spare the time, please reach out to family and friends who might want the opportunity to help a youngster looking for support. Let them know that mentoring is one of the best possible ways to help kids be successful in school and long after.