Nominate a Champion today!

Is it a teacher or librarian who finds innovative and challenging ways to engage every student? Is it a cafeteria worker who gives kids extra encouragement, a volunteer who mentors youth or a working professional who talks to a classroom about career paths?

We all know someone like this. These Champions of Learning use their personal time, resources, and talents to support learning and inspire youth. They’re the adults youth remember for pulling them out of rough situations, pushing them to do better, and inspiring them to keep going.

Please help us give these special individuals the recognition they deserve.

We are taking nominations for the annual Champions of Learning Awards to be presented May 2, 2019. The awards event is a collaboration between the Consortium and United Way’s Be There! campaign, which recognizes adults in western Pennsylvania who go above and beyond to create opportunities and motivate students to reach their greatest potential.

Please submit your candidate no later than January 11 using  this nomination form.

Boston University researcher advocates Individual Learning Plans

The number of states mandating or encouraging Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) has risen to 37 from 22 in the past decade. Although Pennsylvania isn’t one of them, research shows ILPs are worth considering, Boston University Professor Scott Solberg told attendees at a workshop the Consortium cohosted in November with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory (REL).

A well-developed ILP helps students explore their interests, set personal goals and map academic plans for pursuing them. As a result, districts using ILPs find that “students take ownership” of their own learning, Solberg said.

Correctly structured, ILPs encompass both a document and a process. The document maps out courses and post-secondary plans aligned with a student’s career aspirations. It also details the college and career readiness skills a student is developing.

The process is a progression of career advising lessons that help students establish career and life goals; plan their high school courses; and develop plans for post-secondary education, careers and self-management.

With the document and process in place, “Every year, students will be re-examining the possibilities, asking themselves ‘Who am I? and What do I like to do?’,” Solberg said.

“Once students establish goals, watch out,” he added. “They’ll start moving forward, they’ll take over the learning process. Career goals drive college readiness. Kids take the academics they need when they have a goal.”

Motivated by their own goals, students also are more inclined to reach beyond classroom lessons. They seek out tools they can use on their own, including online resources like Kahn Academy. They might even begin challenging perceived deficiencies in their own schools, Solberg added.

Aware that math was crucial to their plans, one classroom of students in Minnesota, for example, petitioned their administration for a new math teacher, he noted. “That’s what happens when you realize you have competency and voice.”

Solberg said some of the most successful implementations of ILPs have been in schools that also converted their parent-teacher conferences into student-led discussions.

“It’s the single, most powerful tool for making this work,” he said, noting that the value of the ILPs and conferences impressed businesses enough in one Wisconsin community that managers encouraged parents to plan time off to attend.

Detailing research findings, Solberg said that ILPs have demonstrated that they lead to higher academic self-efficacy; higher career decision-making readiness; lower psychological and emotional distress; lower academic stress and greater motivation to attend school.

For districts and schools considering them, he suggested starting small, with a single grade level, for example. “If you do it well, there will be a tipping point” when the ILPs will begin to change the culture, bringing about understanding that school is “not about test scores, it’s about launching adults.”


Educator in the Workforce attendees again told many solid career paths can be created without college degrees

It would be extreme to call it a sea change, but there’s undoubtedly a shift in thinking about whether college should be the K-12 goal for all, or even most, students. The reasons hit home for Debbie Reynolds, a Science teacher from Baldwin Whitehall School District, when she visited Covestro as a participant in our Educator in the Workforce program. 

“There are so many really good opportunities where it’s not needed and there are kids who just don’t want to go,” she said.

Social pressures often lead students who should consider other pathways to seek degrees, only to drop out, often with debt, Reynolds added. “My own son is one of them.”

Covestro, a leading maker of high-tech polymers, was the third and latest in a series of immersion experiences we’ve offered this fall through Educator in the Workforce. Previous sessions—one held in partnership with Mascaro Construction and another at NEP Group, the nation’s largest provider of broadcast production services—also challenged what’s long been conventional wisdom on college.

While all three have lots of opportunities for college graduates, what struck many educators during the immersion sessions was how many opportunities each also offers for applicants without four year degrees.

At Covestro’s North American headquarters and primary R&D facility in Robinson, for example, the company hires most chemical lab techs with certificates or associates degrees. It also recruits candidates for many jobs who have accrued experience that supplants the need for an academic credential.

Sometimes, in the company’s labs where technicians need not only to understand chemistry, but also repair or reconfigure bench-scale production equipment, the company is looking as much for people who “are good with their hands, like someone who works on their own car” as it is for chemistry students, said Jack Reese, Director of Process Research in the polyurethane laboratory. “We can teach some of the chemistry, we can’t teach manual dexterity.”

Similarly, at NEP, Chief Engineer Dan Turk said the company isn’t so much looking for degrees as it is for “what people have done.” If they’ve thrown themselves into technology as a hobby or have other related experience, it’s a big plus for pursuing technical jobs with the company. Additionally, NEP looks for problem-solvers. Applicants interested in production don’t need to be math whizzes, but they need to have “an engineering mindset,” Turk said.

What’s more, all three companies that have participated so far in Educator in the Workforce said that even without degrees, most entry-level employees will find opportunities to advance.

“Almost all jobs at Covestro offer career paths,” Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist Wilmus told attendees at her company’s session.She noted there’s an employee currently heading one of the company’s business units who started as an administrative assistant. Wilmus also said that the company offers tuition reimbursement to employees who want to build more knowledge for their jobs, or get degrees that will help them advance within the company.

Like other companies that have participated in Educator in the Workforce, Covestro is facing the hiring challenges that come with an aging workforce. Over the next 10 years, the headquarters and lab will lose 300 to retirement, more than a third of their current staff, said STEM Coordinator Ben Renwick, who promotes STEM careers for Covestro.

All three hosts for Educator in the Workforce have said many of the jobs where hiring shortages already are occurring are skilled trades, from welding to carpentry.

Like NEP and Mascaro, Covestro also is looking for skills that college degrees can’t guarantee.

“The top skills gap is in soft skills,” Wilmus said, noting the company screens for communications and other soft skills in a variety of ways, including behavioral testing in which job applicants are asked how they would handle different problems in different scenarios.

“It’s also not unusual for Covestro to ask applicants to present a Power Point,” on why they want the jobs they’re seeking and what makes them good candidates, Wilmus added.

Such details about the hiring process that educators learned from Covestro and other employers are important, said Christy Chicklo, Special Education Coordinator in South Allegheny School District.  “It’s been great for me to be able to come here and learn what skills the kids need so that I can help them.






Opportunities for educators

Oct. 30: The SWPA Personalized Learning Network and the North Allegheny School District are hosting a regional workshop on strategic transformation, including a facilitated dialogue on emerging best practices and strategies to scale personalized and project-based learning. Learn more and register.

Nov. 2: Intermediate Unit I is partnering with SWPA Personalized Learning Network to help educators tackle changes needed to move toward a student-centered and personalized model. Learn more and register.

Nov. 6: Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC), themed around “Technology and the Future of Work” offers K-12 teachers and administrators more than 50 professional development sessions as well as opportunities to network. Among the sessions, Consortium Program Directors Aaron Altemus and Sarah Brooks will lead a discussion on Project-Based Learning. Learn more and register.

Mar. 29: The Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania is partnering with People’s Gas Co. and CNX to host a career exploration event for students age 12 and older to learn about jobs in the construction industry. Learn more and register.

Educators get close-up look at construction industry jobs

At a one-day learning session about the construction industry, Greensburg Salem High School teacher Jackie Yuhas said one of the most important things she learned was how to access samples of tests given for admission to the region’s 17 trade apprenticeship training programs.

Yuhas said she’s always wanted to go over a sample so that she could make her lessons more “job oriented” and relevant to the ways students will need to use their learning after they graduate.

That kind of learning is exactly what the Consortium’s Educator in the Workforce series is designed to provide. Piloted last year, the program already has scheduled six immersion opportunities for 2018-2019 that will be similar to the one Yuhas attended in early October. 

Mascaro Construction co-hosted the daylong session at the Carpenters Training Center October 8. Some 70 educators from 21 districts attended. In addition to helping educators connect their subject areas to employer needs, the immersion experiences are intended to showcase different career paths and training opportunities available to students.

John Mascaro, the company’s chief executive told attendees he hoped the event would dispel some common misconceptions about the kinds of careers his industry can offer.

“It’s not just picks and shovels,”  he said. “There’s diversity of opportunity second to none. The pathways are limitless.”

Although the industry can provide avenues to well-paying careers for people who don’t want to go to college, Mascaro said those who want degrees are making a mistake to think it has no place for them.

At his own company, whose employment needs are representative of the industry, jobs range from Project Estimators and Project Engineers to Business Developers and the kinds of office jobs that all industries have, including specialists in Human Resources, Information Technology, and Finance, among others.

A number of Mascaro staffers said they had created career paths after joining the company by getting certifications to perform different jobs, like safety inspection or simply by getting on-the-job experience that qualified them for other roles. Many of the certifications can be earned without a college degree.

Mascaro and others on hand from his company, the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania and the Keystone Mountain Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters said construction demand and job openings in the region have exploded.

“It’s an unprecedented opportunity,” Builders Guild Executive Director Jeff Nobers said during a breakout session.

He said the building boom has created $6 billion worth of projects this year alone—compared with an annual average of $2.8 billion—and so many jobs the industry is having trouble filling them. With the region still adding to the backlog of building projects and Baby Boomers retiring, employment needs are expected to continue growing at least through the coming decade.

In other breakout sessions, educators learned about the Carpenters apprenticeship program and that it’s only one of 17 different apprenticeship programs the building trades offer in the region.

Industry representatives also emphasized that construction work, whether in the office or in the field, demands the same transferrable, soft skills, such as communication and problem-solving as other industries.

“Some of the biggest losses on the job site are the result of a lack of communications skills,” said Carpenters’ Training Director Rick Okraszewski.

Carrie Vottero, another attendee from Greensburg Salem said she thought the recurring emphasis on “work ethic” was an important take-home for her students. She also found it eye-opening to learn how many opportunities the construction could offer college graduates. “I didn’t think they were looking that much for college degrees.”

In the same vein,  Justin Ward, a 5th grade teacher in the Laurel Highlands School District, said the entire event was important to “help break down the stigma” for students who don’t necessarily want to go to college, even if they’re academically gifted, and to help educators, parents and others support them in finding solid career paths that don’t require a degree.

The event “just gave me so many things to think about,” he said. “My mind was going a million miles a minute.”






Alliance teams map strategies to improve career learning

When teams in our Future Ready Alliance convened in October to plan career learning improvements for their districts and schools, a management consultant versed in organizational behavior coached them on making the changes without making waves.

“Trying to change things in schools is really hard,” said Wayne A. Jones, Senior Consultant with Social Science Consultants, adding that the job can be easier if teams first create a “culture for change.” 

“Creating psychological safety is the most important thing because it enables risk-taking and learning,” he said, noting that resistance to change boils down to neurobiology. Habits become hardwired in the brain so people need to accommodate change with new neural pathways. Because of that, changes of any kind can be both threatening and tiring.

Psychological safety can help alleviate both, Jones said.

The tips were welcome at a time when all schools are facing new standards around career education and gearing up for assessment against the state’s new “Future Ready Index,” which comprises a mix of indicators and incentivizes career awareness instruction beginning in elementary school.

The standards and the index figured into the projects most Alliance teams are planning for the year.

McKeesport Area School District’s team, for example, was working on a plan for “industry based learning” across grade levels, among other things.

Similarly, a team from South Park Middle School was working to incorporate strategies across subject areas and grade levels, such as thematic instructional units, that teachers can use to address each new standard.

South Park is one of three newcomers to the Alliance this year, along with teams from Mt. Pleasant and Montour school districts. Participating teams now hail from 17 districts in all.




Consortium hosts Policy Committee hearing on partnerships between businesses and schools

Noting that partnerships with K-12 schools represent an avenue for doing it,  a PNC Financial Services Group executive told members of the state House Democratic Policy Committee that businesses need to “move beyond being simply consumers of talent to become investors in talent.”

The PNC executive, Joshua Stewart, Vice President and Director of Talent Programs & Accessibility, made the remark as part of his testimony at the Committee’s public hearing in early October. Rep. Austin Davis (D-McKeesport), a Committee member, asked us to host the hearing where members convened to learn about partnerships between businesses and schools, a key focus for the Consortium.

Consortium Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak (far left) in post-hearing discussion with Rep. Austin Davis (to her left); PNC’s Joshua Stewart (to her right) and IU-1 Assistant Executive Director Don Martin (far right)

Testifying along with Stewart were the Consortium’s Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak and Don Martin, Assistant Executive Director of Intermediate Unit I, which serves Fayette, Greene and Washington counties.

Both Babyak and Stewart indicated that a workforce outlook from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development several years ago served as a call to action for collaborations between employers and K-12 schools. The report, titled Inflection Point, showed that retirements from the region’s workforce over the next decade would outpace growth in the pool of talent graduating from area high schools, creating significant workforce shortages.

Babyak said students often aren’t even aware of the opportunities regional employers can offer. They need help exploring careers and developing transferrable skills, among other supports, she said.  Babyak said employers can help fill those needs and their own by connecting with schools to create awareness about high-demand occupations and the skillsets they require and by helping students build pathways to careers.

Both she and Stewart pointed to the High School Collaborative as an example of businesses working with schools to  address student needs while building the workforce pipeline at the entry level. A partnership between PNC and the Consortium, the Collaborative offers pre-employment training to students while they’re still in high school. Aimed at students who plan to enter the workforce as soon as they graduate, the program this year will reach 2,400 juniors and seniors in 10 high schools and will provide opportunities to learn about and apply for entry-level jobs with four employers.

The program helps students develop the soft, transferrable skills that all employers seek and gives training in job search skills such as interviews and resume writing. It builds on a pilot launched last year in five high schools.




District leaders set to apply “Human Centered Design” after participating in Expanding Innovation 2.0

A training session earlier this week found lots of converts to Human Centered Design (HCD). Brownsville Area School District Superintendent Bill King was quick to say why he was one of them.

“It’s friendly, it’s positive, it’s a unique approach to problem-solving,” he explained.

HCD is a discipline of making decisions in service of people. It has proven to be a powerful approach for business leaders attempting to make their companies more customer-focused. Now gaining traction in education, it’s also expected to help district and school leaders put students at the heart of their decisions.

King’s district was one of seven that participated in Expanding Innovation 2.0, an outgrowth the HCD training program for education leaders that the LUMA Institute piloted last year in cooperation with Remake Learning.

The Consortium and LUMA are working in partnership to extend the training to two more cohorts of education leaders in the 2018-2019 school year. Both the pilot and this year’s trainings were made possible with support from The Grable Foundation.

In addition to Brownsville Area, teams participating in this year’s first two-day training session came from Allegheny Valley, Bethlehem Center, New Castle Area, Northgate and Shaler Area and South Allegheny school districts

As part of the training, they learned HCD concepts by tackling simulated problems such a hypothetical situation with a  goal of increasing civic engagement. To address each problem, teams were given “recipes” that required them to use several of the of 36 HCD methods they were learning during the two-day session.  Among the methods are practices such as conducting interviews, undertaking formal idea-generation sessions, doing stakeholder-mapping and others.

Having completed the training, teams now will apply HCD methods on real projects in their districts and schools. LUMA and Consortium trainers will check in to provide support at the 30, 60, and 90-day marks, after which, the teams will reconvene to present their work. The Consortium already is fielding inquiries from districts interested in joining a second cohort of teams that will get HCD training and perform projects in the second half of the school year.

Projects that the teams from the first training session were planning ranged widely—from improving the school cafeteria experience in one district to boosting staff morale in another.

Brownsville’s King said his team plans to use the HCD methods to better align the use of high school library space with student needs. Noting that technology has reduced the space needed for books, he said the library could conceivably incorporate other resources such as technology or other functions, such as career services.

King said he thought HCD would be a good approach because it encourages participants in the process to express ideas without inhibition. “It’s a no-fear response system,” he said. “Everyone can be comfortable because no one idea is right or wrong.”



Consortium adds new Program Director

Christy Kuehn joined the Consortium as a Program Director this month, just as the school year began and just in time to pitch on a number of our initiatives including the Future Ready Alliance, Student Powered Solutions and Educator in the Workforce.

Christy Kuehn, Ph.D., Program Director

Experienced in both academic settings and the nonprofit sector, she brings more than 10 years of experience as a high school English teacher as well as seven years working at the college level as an instructor and academic advisor.

In the nonprofit sector, she has served as a program administrator and overseen numerous after-school and summer programs for K-12 students. Among her nonprofit roles, she served in several capacities with the Neighborhood Learning Alliance on projects in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Kuehn’s personal and professional goals include advancing equitable access to higher education, empowering educators, and advocating for students. That combination drew her to the Consortium because of its work helping to level the playing field for under-resourced districts.

“The issue that most concerns me in education is equity,” Kuehn said. “I think it’s something we need to address because we see entire populations whose needs aren’t being served.”

“Christy’s background couldn’t be more suited to the work we do,” said the Consortium’s Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak. “She’s all about helping kids plan for their futures and equipping educators with the resources they need to help students prepare for post-secondary education and careers.”

Immediately prior to joining our staff, Kuehn was an academic advisor at Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) where she also served as an Adjunct Professor of English. In her capacity as an advisor, she helped students set educational goals, connected them with college resources and mentored them toward academic success.

Kuehn holds a doctorate in Instructional Management and Leadership from Robert Morris University. She earned her M.A. in Literature from Arizona State University and her B.A. in English Education from Geneva College.





Looking for mentors!

The Consortium is again recruiting adult volunteers for middle school mentoring opportunities in three districts. In partnership with United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, we’ll be offering opportunities to Be A Middle School Mentor (BAMSM) in Clairton City, McKeesport Area and Woodland Hills School Districts.

Additionally, we’ll be working with United Way and YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh to roll out STEM Stars in Woodland Hills. STEM Stars is an after-school mentoring program for intermediate-and- middle school-aged girls. 

The programs offer plenty of support for the mentors as well as the mentees, so there’s no reason to let a lack of experience or uncertainties about working with adolescents stand in the way.

“We always say that all you need to do is show up,” said Frank Kamara, a Public Allies intern on staff at the Consortium who helps organize our mentoring programs. “We have everything planned to make the mentors and the kids comfortable.”

Unlike mentoring programs where adults are on their own in creating ways to engage with students, the BAMSM and STEM programs “provide the environment and activities” for interaction, though mentors still get opportunities in those settings for one-to-one mentoring, Kamara explained.

Among other goals, the BAMSM program aims to improve school attendance by helping students understand the important role education plays in their futures and helping them think about post-secondary education and career opportunities. Mentors in the STEM Stars program help interest girls in STEM through activities planned by a teacher leader and discussions.

If you or someone you know might be interested, you can learn more about BAMSM here or about STEM Stars here.