Message from the Consortium’s Executive Director: A tale of two

We know this has been a deeply unnerving time for the schools and educators we serve as well as our community and business partners. We think about all of you daily and hope to continue working with you even amid this anxiety-ridden backdrop of silenced school bells and business shutdowns. Along with you, we are mourning the losses that come with social distancing, the daily interpersonal connections—with students, colleagues, clients or others—that bring warmth and fullness to our relationships and lives.

Mary Kay Babyak

But if ever a time was a “tale of two,” this is it. Our lives have been completely disrupted. And yet, just as “disruptive” innovations create entirely new markets and networks in commerce, so too have they opened new possibilities for all of us in our professional worlds.

Any ambivalence we might have had about using technology in classrooms—much less as classrooms—of necessity, is falling by the way. Some schools already have operated virtually; others soon will follow. All of us will experiment with new media and tools. Whatever reluctance we might have had, many of these will prove invaluable long after our schools and businesses reopen.

At the Consortium, our staff is examining the amazing possibilities new technologies offer for enhancing and expanding our work with you and the resources we can offer not just during this difficult time, but long after it has passed.

Very soon, for example, we plan to bring you some new tools and/or strategies to support career learning, Project-Based Learning, and Human-Centered Design. Watch your inbox, our website, and social media for alerts about these and other resources as we roll them out over the coming weeks. And, as always, please feel free to reach out to us if there are additional ways you think we might be able to help. We can’t promise we’ll be able, but we’ll certainly always try.

Meanwhile, our thoughts and good wishes are with all of you.


Mary Kay Babyak




Finalists for 2020 Champions of Learning Awards announced; Awards reception postponed

Eighteen individuals spanning six categories have been selected as finalists for the annual Champions of Learning Awards that we offer in partnership with United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Finalists are being recognized for the contributions they make professionally or as volunteers to ensure support and outstanding learning experiences and activities for youth across our region. Categories include: Leadership; Community Providers/Partners; Educators, Grades K-6; Educators, Grades 7-12; School Staff; and Volunteers. Names of our finalists appear in the following announcement.

At the same time as we are announcing our finalists, we also are informing all of those who had been planning to attend the awards reception, originally scheduled for May 7 at the University of Pittsburgh, that the event has been postponed.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the current pandemic, we have not yet set a future date for this event. We will be in touch with you as soon as new arrangements for honoring our Champions of Learning are made.


Schools opened their doors to business reps during Companies in the Classroom  

Sixteen districts across five counties became hosts last month for Companies in the Classroom, an event that gave representatives from nearly 40 regional businesses and eight post-secondary institutions a close-up look at learning in 2020.

After shadowing a student at Quaker Valley Middle School, Covestro Quality Analyst Pam Rozman said the most striking thing about the experience was “the collaboration that happens in the classroom setting.”

“The learning was very interactive, and that was refreshing,” Rozman added during a debriefing that Principal Anthony Mooney held with visitors and students.

At Covestro and many other companies, the kind of collaboration skills she witnessed are an every-day part of the workplace and prerequisite for hiring.

Visitors and educators at some other host sites also remarked on aspects of the day’s learning experience that are particularly valuable in acquainting students with workplace practices.

At Shaler Middle School, for example, participants in a debriefing session discussed the need for students to learn to work together via teleconferences, using Skype or other platforms, particularly if they plan careers with global organizations.

Business guests from PNC Financial Group, Koppers and CGI also shared thoughts on other technologies, including their companies’ insistence that employees use the Microsoft suite of applications for word processing, spreadsheets, and other office needs. Mention of the requirement often takes educators by surprise because so many schools rely on Google Classroom and its set of office tools.

That was exactly the kind of interaction Companies in the Classroom was designed to spark. The event began taking shape last spring when The Grable Foundation organized CEO in the Classroom, an experience that brought industry leaders into schools to shadow students. Companies in the Classroom expanded on it to give more representatives from the business sector and post-secondary institutions an opportunity to visit middle or high schools, shadow students, and find out about their educational experiences and the learning opportunities available to them.

The initiative also was designed to lay groundwork for future partnerships to enhance students’ career learning experiences. Partnerships can take many forms, from classroom visits and lunch-and-learns to job shadows, internships, and more.

Along with Quaker Valley and Shaler Area, districts participating included: Burrell, Connellsville Area, Deer Lakes, Freeport Area, Greensburg-Salem, Hopewell Area, Jeannette City, Laurel Highlands, McKeesport Area, Northgate, Penn Hills, Ringgold, Washington, and Yough.

The Consortium worked with Intermediate Unit 1, Westmoreland County Forum for Workforce Development, and Quaker Valley School District to organize the event.

Youthquake reverberates in projects targeting United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Students who participated in last fall’s Thinc30 Youthquake reconvened in March to present final projects ranging from plans for a school greenhouse and an urban parks awareness campaign to water bottle recycling and school-based toiletries pantry from youth in low-income families.

The projects all aimed to address one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their schools or communities.

Teams from eight schools presented them at a poster session Covestro organized to follow up on Youthquake, one of a series of events the company has hosted since 2018 as part of Thinc30. The events are part of a corporate-wide initiative to find ways of addressing the UN’s SDGs in communities where Covestro operates. The Consortium’s Student Powered Solutions program partnered with Covestro to organize Youthquake and support the student projects.

Greensburg-Salem High School’s team took on seven of the SDGs in a single proposal. With plans for a school greenhouse at the core, they aimed to create “a whole closed system where food that’s grown in the greenhouse could be used in our cafeteria or even in cooking classes,” said Kiera, one of the team members.

“Waste from the cafeteria could be composted and the greenhouse could be used for teaching subjects like biology,” she added, noting that she “liked the simplicity of it.”

Inspired by the farm-to-table movement and other sustainability initiatives in agriculture, the project aimed to address SDGs including Zero Hunger; Good Health and Wellness; Quality Education; Sustainable Cities and Communities; Climate Action; Life on the Land and Responsible Consumption and Production.

Along with Greensburg-Salem, schools participating in the poster session were: Baldwin-Whitehall; Blackhawk; Carlynton; City High; Cornell; Springdale and Woodland Hills.

Like Greensburg-Salem’s proposal, most projects aimed primarily at SDGs covering environmental concerns. Teams from two schools—Blackhawk and Carlynton—for example, mounted campaigns to increase recycling of plastic water bottles. Baldwin-Whitehall’s team conceived of a system of canals along waterways to drive electrical turbines; City Charter was mounting a campaign to bring awareness to the importance of urban parks, and Springdale’s team devised an inexpensive answer to improving indoor air quality.

A couple of the teams also took aim at SDGs covering social issues. With a project called P.E.A.C.E. (Pursuing Excellence And Cherishing Everyone) at Woodland Hills, for example, students aimed to reduce violent crime in their communities with a nonprofit that would bolster social supports such as counseling, after-school activities, and career training.

At Cornell, students aiming to address SDGs involving poverty planned a school toiletries pantry that would provide supplies such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, and sanitary products.

“Eighty-nine percent of our student population is from low-income families,” said Nick, one of the team’s members, adding that a survey was used to assess needs.


New PNC hires share insights on what schools can do to prepare grads for the workplace

When PNC Financial Group hosted our Educator in the Workforce session earlier this month, participants didn’t just get an overview of careers in banking. The teachers and counselors also got some classroom tips.

Attendees learned from a panel of young, new hires what high school experiences had been most valuable in their first jobs and what they wish they’d been taught.

Among valuable experiences that the panelists took into the workplace were participation in team projects and being graded as a group. As students, they said they didn’t necessarily like group grading or find it fair. But in their jobs, they’ve come to recognize “that’s how it is in the workforce,” one young woman said.

Other important experiences ranged from learning to write meeting agendas in school clubs to giving presentations.

As for gaps in their learning, a couple said they didn’t think they’d gotten enough insight into the kinds of job opportunities there are, particularly for students not pursuing degrees. And, almost everybody on the panel agreed they’d received too little preparation in personal finance.

Educators also found out about the many kinds of jobs PNC offers and the ways in which it recruits, both from high schools and on college campuses.

For college students, PNC encourages internships. For high school students it encourages participation in PartnerUp, a pre-employment training program that PNC launched two years ago and offers directly in classrooms in collaboration with several other employers.

In all employees, PNC is looking for soft-skills, also known at the banking firm as “Power Skills,” said Brianna McMeekin, a Vice President and Talent Program Manager who organizes PartnerUp. Additionally, the banking firm wants employees to have a “growth mindset,” she said. Among other things, that means being intellectually curious, finding ways to add value in their roles and always seeking new ways to learn and contribute.

“We’re having a lot of success recruiting directly from high schools” because of PartnerUp,” McMeekin said. “We’ve had some awesome hires.”

Two of PartnerUp’s alums participated on the panel of new hires who shared insights with educators.

Both said the program was invaluable. A McKeesport Area High School gradulate, Madolyn Boynton, for example, said she just hadn’t found direction until she participated in PartnerUp. She said the program not only gave her a path, it helped her get experiences and tools needed to apply for any job, including resume preparation and interview rehearsals.

Educators said the feedback from such recent grads was illuminating as was hearing about PNC’s expectations, which are similar across many other workplaces.

For one Riverview School District teacher, the biggest takeaway was “We need to teach students to be self-starters.” After hearing PNC staffers describe qualities that go into a “growth mindset,” he said, “seeking was a common thread.”




















Eight districts convene around career learning and student plans

More than a year after the Pennsylvania Department of Education implemented its Future Ready Index, districts still are finding their way toward meeting the state’s standards around career learning.

The Index is a yardstick for measuring how well schools are preparing students to establish career paths and achieve success in the workplace. Among other things, all students are expected to create career plans in the 8th grade and revise them as juniors in high school.

At each grade level, schools also must gather evidence, or artifacts, showing students have achieved certain milestones, such as aptitude assessments, or had certain experiences, such as mock-job interviews or work-based learning.

One hurdle is getting teachers in all subject areas to recognize they can play a role, educators said at our Future Ready Alliance’s February Target Day, which focused on student plans.

Many schools are attempting to focus on career and work standards either in seminar classes primarily devoted to career exploration, planning and preparation, or as part of a specific class, such as social studies.

But teachers across all subject areas can play a role in helping students assemble artifacts that show they’re gaining certain career-related competencies, Woodland Hills High School teacher Lauren Baier and Librarian Kevin McGuire told attendees during the Alliance Target Day session.

For example, under standards requiring schools to help students learn about “Career Acquisition,” or how to get a job, one artifact might be a letter a student composed, demonstrating the ability to communicate with an employer in writing.

English teachers often assign letters as a writing exercise, but many don’t think to archive the letters as artifacts that could help students meet career readiness standards.

Baier and McGuire said their team was planning an in-service training to help teachers across disciplines contribute to artifacts to student records documenting career learning.

Because Woodland Hills is using Google Classroom, artifacts for each student are being kept on Google Forms that teachers can use, McGuire said.

Consortium Program Director Christy Kuehn, who helped organize the Alliance Target Day, said many schools are still adjusting both to the new standards and the record-keeping they require.

“So far, responsibilities for meeting the standards have mostly been in the hands of counselors and social studies teachers, but the mindset is changing,” she said. “Now, we’re trying to get to a point where this becomes an important concept in classrooms across the board.”

Along with Woodland Hills, districts and schools participating in the Target Day session included Baldwin-Whitehall, Blackhawk, Clairton City, Duquesne City, Franklin Regional, Greensburg-Salem, and Lawrence County Career & Technical Center.





Students gain confidence and build social skills through Be A Middle School Mentor

National Mentoring Month found students participating in our Be A Middle School Mentor (BAMSM) programs researching colleges with the help of adults offering an hour of their time each week.

One Monday earlier this month, for example, Kara Prentice was on the internet helping her mentee Eugene at McKeesport Area School District’s Founders’ Hall Middle School learn about Ohio State University. Like others in the program, he got a college to research from the logo on a sweatshirt he chose at BAMSM’s “Hoodies for the Holidays” event.

Eugene said he’s leaning toward joining the Army or Air Force, but during the BAMSM session, he also learned the military and college aren’t mutually exclusive. Among other options, he could join R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officers Training Corps) while still in high school.

Discussing colleges or career paths is just one of the ways caring adults can help kids think about their future goals and understand that doing well in school is the first step toward reaching them. BAMSM programs are designed to give kids that support. In partnership with United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, the Consortium offers BAMSM in Clairton and Woodland Hills school districts as well as McKeesport Area.

After finishing their college profiles during the session in McKeesport, Charles and Isaiah played a game of Ketch-up with local Fire Chief Jeffrey Tomovcsik. They took turns rolling the dice and drawing cards that gave them ice-breaker questions to answer so that they could get to know more about each other. Some were silly, others serious. Big grins broke out around the table as the boys and Tomovcsik found out they shared a passion for the same school subject—History.

Tomovcsik signed on as a mentor because “I love working with kids,” he said, noting that there are a lot in his community who he knows need extra support.

Students join the program voluntarily, some because their school counselors suggest it, others because they learn about BAMSM from friends.

Isaiah said he’s found BAMSM helpful for “learning social skills and how to talk to people who like different things.”

Similarly, Alex said that for her, “It’s been learning a lot about communication—how to talk to people and really engage in conversation.”

Their answers affirm important aims of mentoring, said Frank Kamara, a Consortium Program Associate who helps organize BAMSM.

“During adolescence, even kids who have good role models and supportive families sometimes need the outside perspective of another adult,” he said. “At that age, all kids are struggling with social and emotional growth.”

It’s apparently something Angelina, another McKeesport middle schooler, has intuitively understood.

Now in her third year with BAMSM and bringing her sister Mylie along, she said the most important thing the program is teaching her is “how to be yourself.”



Human-Centered Design gives educators durable strategies for problem-solving

Although their projects varied widely, many of the educators participating in Expanding Innovation 2.1 during the fall semester had a similar outcome from the experience. When they gathered to present their work earlier this month, one after another marveled at the utility of the human-centered design (HCD) methods they’d learned and felt certain they’d find multiple ways to use them going forward.

“This is a tool we’ve just seen take off,” said Carlynton Junior-Senior High School Principal Mike Loughren, ticking off four different ways that his staff already has used HCD methods.

Carlynton was one of eight districts that participated in Expanding Innovation 2.1, an HCD training program we offered in October in partnership with LUMA Institute and support from The Grable Foundation. HCD is an activities-based approach to problem-solving that focuses on people above other factors, whether the challenge is making a better product, as is often the case in industry, or finding the best ways to make changes in schools.

“One of the biggest takeaways for us was how simple these strategies are, and even more importantly, how well they were accepted,” said Laurel Highlands School District’s Curriculum Director Randy Miller.

As part of their HCD training, participants in Expanding Innovation 2.1 undertook projects in their schools applying varying combinations of the 36 different methods LUMA prescribes. The methods all are aimed at gathering, sorting and analyzing information and ultimately, drawing conclusions.

At Carlynton alone, educators applied HCD strategies in classroom teaching; in professional development; as an intervention for students with high rates of absenteeism and as part of a Project-Based Learning experience at the high school.

Projects ranged from repurposing library space in Clairton City School District, to reexamining and overhauling an elementary school writing portfolio project Laurel Highlands had implemented 15 years ago.

Laurel Highlands also used HCD at the administrative and Board levels, said Superintendent Jesse Wallace. Like others, he found the methods an effective way to ensure everyone had a voice in decision-making.

Along with Laurel Highlands, Carlynton, and Clairton City, participating districts included Cornell, Deer Lakes, Ellwood City, Shaler Area and Steel Valley.








Allegheny Health Network, Duquesne Light and Covestro host latest immersion opportunities for Educator in the Workforce

Academic and technical skills are important to employers, of course. But participants in our Educator in the Workforce program are hearing time and again that they’re not all that’s important and, sometimes, not even most important.

At Duquesne Light Co., for example, candidates for the Electrical Distribution Technician program must take a math test, but they also must exhibit soft skills. “It’s a team environment,” explained Talent Acquisition Manager Selenna Gregg when the utility hosted our Educator in the Workforce program in January. The visit was one of two in January. The other was at Allegheny Health Network. Both followed a December visit to Covestro.

At Covestro, “I think the biggest soft skills we look for are communication and strong thinking skills — being able to think logically and being able to communicate,” said John Brandt, who serves as Technical Manager with hiring responsibilities for the company.

“Another thing I look for is grit,” he said. “We can’t have people who give up whenever there’s a challenge. Related to that, you have to be a self-starter, a learner…And no matter what job you do, you need to be able to work on teams.”

“We’re asked a lot, ‘What does career-readiness look like’?” Brandt told educators during a site visit. “I have to tell you, it’s changed.”

As much as employers need people who’ve achieved a certain level of mastery in their fields, they also “need employees with soft skills,” he said.

Because hiring criteria have changed, so have interview techniques.

“We do a lot of behavioral-based interviews,” Brandt said.

Many employers looking for soft skills have made the same shift, including Duquesne Light. During so-called behavioral interviews, recruiters ask applicants to recount situations that challenged them — whether interpersonal or task-related — and their own responses.

For example, interviewees might be asked to relate how they react when they find out they’ve made a mistake and give an example.

Educators attending the career immersion session at Covestro peppered Brandt and other hiring managers with questions, wanting to know what makes a resume stand out, among other things.

Before selecting candidates for interviews, Brandt said he and his colleagues look for things that might give clues about a candidate’s dispositions. An applicant who was on a school swim team, for example, might be someone who emphasizes individual performance insofar as it contributes to overall team success.

Finally, he encouraged educators to let students know that cover letters give them an opportunity to mention things that a resume wouldn’t address.










Consortium staffers to speak at SAS Institute Conference

Three Consortium staffers will be presenting at the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s upcoming annual SAS Institute Conference, which begins Sunday, December 8 at the Hershey Lodge & Convention Center in Hershey, PA.

The theme for this year’s event is “Bridging the Skills Gap…A Pathway to Employability.”

In that context, Program Directors Aaron Altemus and Sarah Brooks will present twice on our Student-Powered Solutions (SPS) program, which partners with local employers around learning experiences that help students prepare for the workplace.

Separately, Program Director Christy Kuehn will team up with Jessica Trybus from Simcoach Games to discuss using video games to engage students in career learning.

Altemus and Brooks, who regularly lead PBL training sessions for educators, also oversee SPS, which will be both the focus of a breakout session and one of four PBL programs showcased during the luncheon presentations.

SPS pairs classrooms with companies willing to offer students real-world challenges as the basis for PBL assignments. By working in teams, students executing the projects develop soft skills needed in all workplaces.

Because of the corporate partnerships, SPS also can build opportunities for career exploration into some of its projects. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) earlier this year certified SPS projects incorporating career investigation opportunities as meeting state Work-Based Learning Experience standards for “job shadows.”

“SPS addresses career learning at a number of levels,” said Brooks. “We’re looking forward to letting other educators see both the power of this program and its replicability.”

In a separate presentation, Kuehn and Trybus will discuss a suite 36 video games that Simcoach developed for helping students with career discovery and exploration; identification of aptitudes; and/or career preparation and skills development. The company developed two of the games in collaboration with the Consortium.

“This medium appeals so much to kids, it should make the engagement part pretty easy,” Kuehn said.