CCK helps Yough students explore apprenticeships

A group of students from Yough High School got a close-up look at trade apprenticeship opportunities this month when two training centers hosted them as part of our College & Career Knowledge (CCK) program. Early in the morning, students visited Steamfitters Local 449’s new state-of-the-art training center in Harmony, Butler County. After lunch, they visited the Ironworkers Local 3 training center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. 

Hosts at both centers said that the trades offer lots of options that aren’t always apparent. Among them are opportunities to earn associate’s degrees and even bachelor’s degrees, Steamfitters Training Director Dale Glavin told the students. He said work in his field isn’t just installing the piping for industrial facilities, refrigeration systems and other applications. Steamfitters learn computer-aided design of piping systems, become skilled service technicians and can pursue supervisory and managerial positions as well.

He counseled that students interested in the program could make themselves stand out among applicants by getting jobs or even pursuing hobbies that show they have mechanical ability.

Representatives at both training centers said trades offer a very viable alternative to college for students who want one. The apprenticeship programs offer paid training and typically lead to jobs with high, five-figure incomes and substantial benefits.

In addition to learning about the programs and touring the training facilities, students participating in CCK also sometimes get a chance to try their hands at some of the skills apprentices learn. During their visit to the Ironworkers, a number of kids tried tying together the rebar used to strengthen the concrete cores of walls in office tower construction.




Conference offers insight into college transition

A panel of business leaders told educators attending our Bridges to College Success conference that they’re looking as much for transferrable, soft skills when they hire as they are for academic and technical proficiency. While not entirely surprised, attendees invariably said that insight underscored the need for giving students more opportunities to cultivate abilities like communication, problem-solving, organization and teamwork.  The Consortium co-hosted the conference with Pitt-Greensburg.

The panel discussion was designed to bring a real-world perspective to what it takes for students to succeed after graduation. Businesses and organizations represented in the discussion included Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce, Pittsburgh Technology Council, Consol Energy, Excela Health, Westmoreland County Human Services, PNC Financial Services, and the American Association of Employment in Education. Bill Flanagan, host of Our Region’s Business on WPXI and Chief Corporate Relations Officer for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, moderated the panel.

Overall, the Bridges conference was designed to create dialogue between post-secondary and secondary educators around ways to minimize the difficulties many students face transitioning to college.

The Conference offered more than a dozen breakout presentations on topics ranging from challenges in admissions to test-anxiety, career trends, self-advocacy, making college affordable, understanding Generation Y students and a professor’s perspective on college preparedness. Additionally, there were facilitated roundtable discussions on various topics, including college level reading and writing, student expectations, and tutoring and other supports students can find on campus.

In addition to faculty and staff members from Pitt Greensburg, other post-secondary institutions hosting breakout sessions or facilitating discussions included Alderson Broadus Universty, California University of Pennsylvania, LaRoche College, Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, St. Vincent College, Seton Hill University and Slippery Rock University.

Among insights from the discussions:

  • Though raised with technology, kids don’t necessarily have the digital skills college professors and employers require, like facility with Microsoft Office
  • Challenges that students from low-income families face adjusting to college are often different and far greater than for their middle class and affluent peers
  • Strong communications skills, including writing, are paramount both in college and the workplace and often are the tie-breaker between two competing job applicants
  • Employers want applicants to be able to articulate how past experiences will enable them to “add value” in a workplace or make them more competent for a particular job
  • The best students not only are conscientious, they’re self-motivated, proactive and seek out what they need to know

SPS teams aim to expand theater’s market

As part of our Student Powered Solutions (SPS) program, teams from Albert Gallatin and Laurel Highlands high schools began a semester-long project this month to help Uniontown’s historic State Theatre Center for the Arts attract a younger audience. 

Opened as a movie theater nearly a century ago, the venue has seen its ups, downs and transformations. Ready availability of television entertainment combined with the advent of multi-screen theaters siphoned away patrons and forced its shutdown in 1973. It found new life several years later as a music hall featuring country western greats like Johnny Cash, but couldn’t sustain profitability. Revived a third time as a nonprofit by the Greater Uniontown Heritage Consortium in 1988, the theater has since pursued a mix of programming—from touring stage productions, to classic movies, school musicals and civic events. Still, it struggles to overcome multiple obstacles including an inability thus far to attract young patrons, Executive Director Erica Miller told students after they toured the theater in early October. 

The student teams will offer possible solutions as one of the Project-Based Learning opportunities SPS organizes between schools and businesses or organizations willing to let kids can try their hands at tackling real world problems. PBL not only gives students a chance to apply their classroom lessons, it also helps them develop the soft, transferrable skills needed to succeed in the workplace. At the same time, the students can bring fresh perspectives to the businesses and organizations that take them on as consultants.

Students peppered Miller with questions in anticipation of doing deeper research. They’ll reconvene at the theater in December to present their findings.





Alliance maps out year, gets research overview from REL

Educators involved in our Future Ready Alliance  got their 2017-2018 work underway this week, reviewing network goals and refining projects they plan to undertake in their schools and districts.

The Alliance, which also enlists partners from business and higher education, aims to help ensure students are getting the opportunities and experiences they need to prepare for post-secondary education and careers. Participating teams focus on giving students support, beginning in kindergarten, to answer three questions crucial to imagining and planning—Who am I? Who do I want to be? and How do I get there.

Greensburg Salem team analyzes project options

Formation of the Alliance comes at a time when federal and state education policymakers are putting greater emphasis on career readiness. To support that aim, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory at Mathematica has established career readiness as one of seven areas of focus.  Representatives from the REL were on hand at our October kickoff to present a workshop for Alliance teams and to offer research and technical support.

Education Researcher and REL representative Becky Smerdon said Pennsylvania education policymakers are ahead of the national curve in emphasizing career readiness. Although it’s been a hot topic in education research, only

REL reps Jan Anderson (left) and Becky Smerdon  

a couple of states are giving it such a high priority in response to the federal Every Child Succeeds Act.

Smerdon said research divides the essentials of career readiness into three categories of knowledge and skills—academic content, pathway knowledge and lifelong learning skills.

The categories encompass the three critical questions at the heart of the Alliance’s work. Pathways knowledge is what kids get by asking who they want to be and how to get there. They also inevitably find when asking “how”  that they’ll need transferrable nonacademic skills to succeed over a lifetime.

“The questions help make ‘future readiness’ less abstract,” said Consortium Program Director Candice Murrell as she reviewed overall goals at the Alliance kickoff meeting.

“Future readiness is about a lot more than being able to pass this or that test,” added the Consortium’s Director of Organizational Advancement Jackie Foor. “It’s also about developing those transferrable skills students need to be successful.”

Foor and Murrell both are members of the Consortium team that organizes the Alliance.

The Alliance grew out of several exploratory discussions the Consortium organized over the past two years among secondary and post-secondary educators and regional business representatives, including the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Partnerships between these stakeholders have been gaining momentum as schools find increasing value in “real world” learning experiences, as businesses anticipate workforce shortages and as employers point to a “soft skills gap” among young hires.






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.