Education

Friday, June 10, 2016

Pittsburgh's superintendent scandal could hurt education discourse

Posted By on Fri, Jun 10, 2016 at 12:35 PM

Anthony Hamlet at the June 7 press conference - PHOTO BY REBECCA NUTTALL
  • Photo by Rebecca Nuttall
  • Anthony Hamlet at the June 7 press conference
As a reporter who has covered education in Pittsburgh for nearly eight years, I was disheartened last week to hear that Pittsburgh's newest superintendent Anthony Hamlet was being scrutinized for discrepancies in his resume.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette story about the discrepancies was one of the first things I read this past Saturday after returning from my honeymoon at a resort with spotty WiFi. It filled me with anxiety before my looming return to work on Monday. Not because the prospect of a 9-to-5 work week seems less than appealing to anyone after 10 days off, or even because Mondays are the busiest days here at City Paper, but because I had been looking forward to a fresh start on the education beat.

Hamlet was presented to the public on May 18 and approved by the Pittsburgh Public School Board that same evening. In a statement from the district following the board's vote, Hamlet was defined as a "transformational leader." At the May 18 press conference, search consultant Brian Perkins touted Hamlet's record of raising achievement at struggling schools as director of school-transformation accountability in the Palm Beach County's (Fla.) school district.

“It was critical for us that we had somebody that had improved achievement for a diverse population of students,” said Pittsburgh Public Schools Director Regina Holley.

Perkins called the search process a "textbook" example of how to ensure that input from various community stakeholders is included in the selection process. It appeared Hamlet checked off all the requirements that make up a quality pick for superintendent. 

"The call for applications was a very specific one. We weren't looking for hundreds of applications," said Perkins. "We said we wanted someone who has teaching experience. We said we wanted someone who has been a principal." 

His selection was also praised by local leaders like Mayor Bill Peduto and the teacher's union.

"Dr. Hamlet brings a tremendous wealth and diversity of experience to our district, and the PFT whole-heartedly welcomes him," Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visigitis said in a statement. "It was wonderful to hear him speak to the primary importance of a positive and supportive school culture, and we look forward to working with him, and introducing him to the great work of our teachers, our students and our union."

But since then, the details Hamlet listed on his resume to bolster his record have been called into question. A June 3 article by the Palm Beach Post criticized Hamlet's assertions that he raised the grades at two struggling Palm Beach County schools from an F to a C, and raised the graduation rate at Palm Beach Lakes High School by 13 percentage points.

At a press conferences today, Hamlet admitted to making an error when he said he raised the two school's grades from an F to a C. But he said the other numbers he used as evidence of his accomplishments were taken from different data sets than those used by federal and state education agencies. (Data from the Florida education department and federal graduation rates do not align with Hamlet's assertions, according to the Post-Gazette and Palm Beach Post).

"It is unfortunate that we have begun this way," Hamlet said. "But I believe today, having answered these questions, I look forward to working with the board, schools, community, families and, more importantly, the students to continue some of the great work already taking place in the district."

Whether or not  Hamlet knowingly embellished his resume, it's possible the damage has already been done. 

All too often, discussions about education in Pittsburgh and around the country amount to little more than playing politics, and missteps are not quickly forgotten.

I'm afraid that now, anytime someone disagrees with a proposal by Hamlet's administration, they'll use this situation as undeniable proof that he is wrong instead of having a discussion about the merits of a proposal or alternative solutions to the district's problems.  

We've seen it happen before. All too often, the proposals and decisions made by Superintendent Linda Lane weren't evaluated based on their content. Instead they were criticized because Lane was seen as a continuation of the old guard started by former Superintendent Mark Roosevelt. When Lane was selected, many in the Pittsburgh community clamored for a superintendent from outside of the district. Lane's inclusion in the Roosevelt administration led many to write off her initiatives before an adequate discussion could take place.

Hamlet's selection was refreshing because he was supported by nearly every key stakeholder in the education community . For the sake of education discourse in this city and the success of Pittsburgh's public school students, I hope this pothole in Hamlet's tenure doesn't dictate his next five years with the district. 

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Smart Is Cool hosts health and wellness summit in Wilkinsburg

Posted By on Thu, May 19, 2016 at 5:15 PM

A student receives a certificate for completing the summit. - PHOTO BY REBECCA NUTTALL
  • Photo by Rebecca Nuttall
  • A student receives a certificate for completing the summit.
According to education researchers, the likelihood of a student graduating from high school can be predicted in middle school. 

Earlier today 50 middle school students from Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg participated in the Smart Pittsburgh Summit. There they learned about health and wellness inside and out and how their health relates to scholastic achievement and future success.

The event was hosted by Internationally Smart Is Cool (the organization uses Smart=Cool for short), an organization aimed at changing the negative culture around learning and education in underserved communities. 

A student shares what they learned at the summit - PHOTO BY REBECCA NUTTALL
  • Photo by Rebecca Nuttall
  • A student shares what they learned at the summit
"Today is just the beginning. Today you all learned a little bit about how you can figure out what makes you smart and how you can use that and your academics to move forward," said Jamillia Kamara, the head of Smart Is Cool told the students. "When you go home, I want you to think 'what am I good at?' What are the things you're really passionate about? What would you do for the rest of your life if money wasn't a thing. I want you to start cultivating that. Start finding opportunities in your community to help out. Start figuring out who are the adults in your life who can help you develop that skill." 

The event was emceed by Devyn Swain, a local musician and educator. 

"I really support the message of Smart Is Cool because I think a lot of times in black and brown communities we don't have that positively reinforced," says Swain. "Naturally these kids want to aspire to be athletes or entertainers because that's where black and brown people are overly represented, but we need to teach them smart is cool. They can be doctors, astronauts and veterinarians, too."

One of today's sessions was led by members of the organization Grindware Community Center, a soon-to-be opened recreational space in Wilkinsburg that will feature a conference room, studio, storefront, computer room and an educational classroom. Shemaria Scharmann taught the students how to create success in their personal lives, at school and in the future.

"Maybe we could stop a lot of the violence that's going on if you guys channeled your energy into something you're passionate about instead of getting angry because someone said something about what you're wearing," Scharmann said.

The students also learned about poetry from Jay Oriola, a local poet.

"If you don't speak for yourself, other people will speak for you," Oriola said. "I want you to know there's freedom in expressing yourself."

Sister Thea Bowman is made up of kids from across the Pittsburgh area including neighborhoods like Penn Hills, Garfield and Wilkinsburg. The school has partnered with Smart Is Cool for the past two years.

"There's not one way to be smart. I don't care what anybody tells you," Kamara said. "There are multiple ways to be smart. Whatever your interest or hobby is, you can use that to make a great life for yourself, and it starts here."

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pittsburgh Public Schools names superintendent candidate

Posted By on Wed, May 18, 2016 at 4:53 PM

Anthony Hamlet with members of the PPS community - PHOTO BY REBECCA NUTTALL
  • Photo by Rebecca Nuttall
  • Anthony Hamlet with members of the PPS community
Pending a school board vote tonight, Anthony Hamlet will be the new superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools. The selection was announced at a press conference earlier today where Hamlet, formerly of Palm Beach County's school district, addressed the audience.  

"I strive to create opportunities and remove roadblocks as we focus on the journey, not the destination. For it is a process, not an outcome," said Hamlet. "A successful superintendent has to satisfy many constituencies keeping high achievers in the system while devoting resources to those who need them most."

Hamlet brings more than a decade of experience as a teacher and principal for both alternative learning institutions and suburban schools. In his current role he serves as director of school transformation accountability. (He also played professional football for the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts.)

"As research in the area of education evolves, so should our district leadership in order to prepare our school leaders and teachers for the complexity and level of cognitive work our students must achieve in order to become college and career ready," Hamlet said. 

The school board's candidate was selected from an initial pool of six that were narrowed down from the dozens of applicants by Perkins Consulting. Hamlet was chosen from a final group of two men and one woman.

"The call for applications was a very specific one. We weren't looking for hundreds of applications," said Brian Perkins, the search consultant hired by the district. "We said we wanted someone who has teaching experience. We said we wanted someone who has been a principal." 

A group of PPS high school students developed a questionnaire for superintendent applicants. After the students reviewed the applicants' answers to their questions, they provided feedback to the school board. 

"We did a lot of things in this search process," said Perkins. "We were deliberate in our actions to get the community involved. From my view it was a textbook clinic of how to get the word out and get the community involved."

A number of local politicians attended today's announcement, including Mayor Bill Peduto, city councilors Dan Gilman and Theresa Kail Smith, and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. 

“I’m excited that Dr. Hamlet will be bringing his years of expertise, leadership and commitment to the lives of children to Pittsburgh’s schools, and the greater community as well. I look forward to working with him and the PPS Board to further build upon the partnerships we have forged to support children and families throughout the city," Peduto said in a statement. "On behalf of the city residents we serve together I want to thank Board members for their hard work in finding a new schools leader, and their proven commitment to reaching out to parents citywide in informing their decision"

Hamlet will replace Superintendent Linda Lane who has lead the district since 2010. 

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

City of Asylum/Pittsburgh Restaurant, Bookstore, Event Space Set for September

Posted By on Wed, May 11, 2016 at 2:31 PM

This nonprofit has come a long way since 2004, when it was launched to shelter a single writer under threat of persecution. (The first was dissident Chinese poet Huang Xiang.) Yesterday, the group that’s since become one of Pittsburgh’s top literary organizations announced that its big plans for a new headquarters are just months from completion.

The planned Alphabet City building (to left of "Garden" building) - PHOTO BY BILL O'DRISCOLL
  • Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
  • The planned Alphabet City building (to left of "Garden" building)
Alphabet City, located in the North Side’s former Masonic Building (right next to the landmark former Garden Theater), will include a name wine-and-cheese café, a bookstore, and event space accommodating up to 225.

While yesterday’s press event drew dignitaries including Mayor Bill Peduto and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the space is still quite raw. Green tarps billowed from the building’s façade onto West North Avenue, and the 100 or so press and visitors were required to don hard hats to tread the plywood floor of the 9,000-square-foot space, currently stripped to plaster and I-beams.

City of Asylum has long been busy sheltering writers and hosting literary events with an international flavor, including its signature annual Jazz Poetry event; in 12 years, it’s offered events featuring more than 300 writers and musicians from 60 countries, co-founder Henry Reese said yesterday. Last year alone, it drew more than 5,000 visitors to about 50 programs, all of them free.

This past November, the group became the U.S. headquarters for the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), which called City of Asylum/Pittsburgh “the model for the world.”

The $12.2 million Masonic Building reboot will allow the group to do even more: Some 150 programs are already planned in the first year of operation, according to press materials, starting with Sept. 9 and 10 readings by Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize-winning investigative journalist who fled Belarus in 2000.

The space will permanently host a 24-seat incarnation of Caselulla @ Alphabet City — the wine-and-cheese café is expanding outside of New York City for the first time — and City of Asylum Books @ Alphabet City, a bookstore specializing on books in translation (though it will also carry new and used books in English and operate a free-book program). Yesterday, Reese introduced the shop’s inaugural manager: Lesley Rains, who’s just completing the sale of her East End Book Exchange. (Rains tells CP that the new space will actually be bigger than EEBX, which lives in a Bloomfield storefront.)
The bookshop’s shelves will be movable to allow for full use of the space.


Continue reading »

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

University of Pittsburgh report looks at racial bias in early childhood education

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 3:45 PM

Mayor Bill Peduto at a press conference discussing the findings of a recently released report - PHOTO BY REBECCA NUTTALL
  • Photo by Rebecca Nuttall
  • Mayor Bill Peduto at a press conference discussing the findings of a recently released report
Unless you have a kid or family member 10 years old or under, you probably have never heard of Doc McStuffins. She's a 6-year-old cartoon character on the Disney channel who cares for stuffed animals and toys.

Essentially, she's an African-American veterinarian, serving as a role model for other Black children who might some day be inspired to study medicine. 

“The kids who are of color see her as an African-American girl, and that’s really big for them,” Chris Nee, the creator of Doc McStuffins said in a 2014 New York Times article. 

But according to parents surveyed as part of a recently released University of Pittsburgh study, one children's show where the lead character is a person of color is not enough. That's because research suggests kids as young as six months old have already developed negative racial associations with African Americans.

University of Pittsburgh study, Understanding PRIDE in Pittsburgh, which was discussed at an event earlier today, looked at the reasons behind these associations, their impact on education, and how to eradicate them. It focused on African-American children ages 3-6 within home and school settings.

"By age 3 children are easily sorting people into categories," said Aisha White, one of the report's authors. "Parents are often surprised by the things kids pick up and absorb from the larger society."

The report includes input from teachers, stakeholders and parents, as well as observations from local early childhood classrooms. It provides an action plan for protecting African-American children from the harmful effects of racism by supporting their positive racial identity development in early education (PRIDE). 

"When young children have a positive racial identity, they are able to own and embrace their racial and ethnic heritage fully and with dignity," said White.

Overall, the report concluded that open and honest conversations, that do not ignore racial and ethnic differences, are important for kids and can begin at an early age.

"For all of us, we want to learn and grow around racial oppression," said Erika Gold Kestenberg, who contributed to the report. "We want to support positive racial identity development among young children of color and move away from the colorblind approach." 

The report recommended several areas for addressing white privilege and systematic institutional racism in the community, homes and schools. Among the recommendations was that parents, teachers and schools should have access to resources to help them support positive racial identity development in kids.

"Parents are still grappling with their own early childhood racial experiences," said Medina Jackson, another contributor. "They urgently want to discuss race with their children but need assistance."

At a press conference today, researchers presented the findings of the report to the public and Mayor Bill Peduto.

"There are different ways in a city this large that can be broken down into individual parts and be implemented," said Peduto.

The report was researched and produced by the Race and Early Childhood Collaborative — a partnership of Pitt's School of Education’s Office of Child Development, Center for Urban Education and Supporting Early Education and Development (SEED) Lab.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Reading tomorrow at Wigle Whiskey benefits Pittsburgh literacy program

Posted By on Wed, Apr 6, 2016 at 9:38 AM

A happy-hour reading by local authors highlights Libations for Literacy, which benefits Words Without Walls. The Chatham University-based initiative is a creative-writing outreach program that serves the Allegheny County Jail, the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, and Sojourner House, a residential drug-and-alcohol treatment program for mothers and their children.

libations.jpg
The event runs 6-9 p.m. tomorrow, with a happy hour from 6-7 p.m. and the readings to follow.

The reading and book-signing features local authors Eric Boyd (editor of last year’s The Pittsburgh Anthology); poet Toi Derricotte (The Undertaker’s Daughter); fiction writer Sherrie Flick (the just-released Whiskey, Etc.); poet Heather McNaugher; and novelist Sarah Shotland (Junkette). Shotland is also Words Without Walls’ co-founder and program coordinator.

The suggested donation is $5, and 12 percent of all cocktail and bottle sales go directly toward supporting Words Without Walls.

Donations of paperback books will be accepted to furnish the Gumberg Library ACJ Project, at Duquesne University, to be used by inmates at the Allegheny County Jail.

Wigle Whiskey is located at 2401 Smallman St., in the Strip District.

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Pittsburgh’s Fort Pitt Museum Explores 18th-Century Indian Captivity Tomorrow

Posted By on Fri, Mar 25, 2016 at 11:04 AM

Experts convene at the museum for a day-long supplement to its intriguing exhibit titled Captured by Indians: Warfare & Assimilation on the 18th Century Frontier.

"The Capture of John Brickell," a diorama in the "Captured by Indians" exhibit - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE FORT PITT MUSEUM
  • Photo courtesy of the Fort Pitt Museum
  • "The Capture of John Brickell," a diorama in the "Captured by Indians" exhibit
Flesh of Our Flesh, Bone of Our Bone” includes talks, an illustrated lecture and a look at some artifacts from the show, including rare prisoner cords that Native Americans from this region used to bind captives (and which served a ceremonial as well as a practical function).

The presentations begin at 11 a.m. with a talk by Shawnee tribe member Jeremy Turner, who’ll discuss the importance and procedures of captivity and adoption among the Northeastern Woodland tribes (who in the 18th century often resorted to captivity to replenish populations lost to warfare and diseases imported from Europe).

Historian R. Scott Stephenson follows with “Halters and Cords: The Decorative Art of Securing Captives in the Eastern Woodlands,” an illustrated lecture.

The program also includes Voices of Captivity, a reading and discussion of Indian captivity narratives from the 18th century. Such narratives were among most popular literature of the time.

The day’s programming continues until 3:30 p.m. and is included with regular museum admission ($3.50-7, and free for children ages 5 and under).

The Fort Pitt Museum is located at 601 Commonwealth Place, in Point State Park. 

For more information, see here.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

TEDxPittsburgh Issues Call for Speakers for May Event

Posted By on Wed, Feb 24, 2016 at 4:53 PM

TEDxPittsburgh, a locally organized series meant to spark discussion and change, is seeking nominations for speakers for its next event.

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The event will be held Sun., May 22, at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, in Oakland. The theme is Activate: Ideas in Motion.

According to a press release, the event seeks “speakers who have taken a spark of inspiration and ignited others to change. Speakers that take service, innovation and community-building to a higher level. The people that have overcome challenges in their field activating a ripple effect that puts ideas into action, making life better for others.”

You can nominate a speaker here. Nominations are open until Mon., Feb. 29. (And yes, you are allowed to nominate yourself.)

For examples of speakers at last year’s TEDxPittsburgh, see here.

TED (for “Technology, Education, Design”) is a three-decade-old nonprofit group that holds two annual conferences featuring both internationally known and less well-known thinkers, entrepreneurs, authors, activists and scientists; the talks of 18 minutes or less are widely disseminated online. TED's slogan is “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

TEDx is a spin-off that press materials define as “a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience.” Pittsburgh has already hosted several TEDx events.

TEDx events, according to the press release, “showcase the ideas, individuals and innovations that are redefining the region.” TEDx Pittsburgh promises “an eclectic mix of local talks and videos previously recorded at TED conferences with the community.”


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Friday, February 12, 2016

App developed in Pittsburgh facilitates conversations with a "synthetic" Charles Darwin

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2016 at 11:53 AM



Today is Charles Darwin's 207th birthday, and while there aren't any birthday bashes happening in Pittsburgh today, it's worth noting that local scientists have developed an app that facilitates a conversation with a "synthetic" Darwin.

"The fundamental principles of evolution are the way biology works, and a lot of people, particularly in the U.S., have a misunderstanding about evolution," says John Pollock, a biology professor at Duquesne University who came up with the idea for the app. "It's sad that some people believe there's another side to this; but evolution is like gravity, it is part of our universe."

The app — called Darwin Synthetic Interview — recently launched on iTunes, Google Play and the Amazon App Store and allows users to ask Darwin, actor Randy Kovitz, nearly 200 questions about his life and work. Pollock says he and his colleague and fellow Duquesne professor Dave Lampe crafted the scripted answers.

Darwin Synthetic Interview app allows users to ask questions about Charles Darwin on their mobile devices.
  • Darwin Synthetic Interview app allows users to ask questions about Charles Darwin on their mobile devices.

"We referenced everything from Darwin's writings and letters," Pollock says. However, there were a lot of things that Darwin didn't know about during his life but that his research applies to today.

"If you ask our Darwin about genetics, he says he doesn't know," says Pollock. There are also a lot of social science and theological questions that users may want to ask of Darwin as well, says Pollock.

To fill the gaps, users can ask modern experts — from American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Witold Walczak to the Vatican's chief scientist —  about how the foundations of Darwin's research applies to various aspects of life today. 

"That lets it fit into a very broad audience," Pollock says.

The Darwin Synthetic Interview was created as an interactive educational tool, on exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center, in 2009 by Pollock and his team, along with Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, with funding from the National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Awards. The local company Simcoach Games adapted it into an app late last year. 

Though the full app is $9.99, a free "lite" version includes 24 of the most popular questions asked of Darwin.





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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Pittsburgh's National Aviary gets baby sloth

Posted By on Wed, Feb 10, 2016 at 11:44 AM

On Monday, the North Side received a new resident: a baby Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth. The National Aviary’s newest, distinctly flightless tenant is expected to be a boon for the Aviary. While the slow and steady bundle of cuteness doesn’t have a name yet, he is set for a public reveal on Friday.
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Baby Sloth

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He will live in a habitat that can be seen through a glass pane near the western entrance to the Aviary. The three-month-old sloth will be a short ways down the hall from Wookie, the Aviary’s senior sloth. Wookie is doing “very well,” according to Dr. Pilar Fish, the Aviary’s director of veterinary medicine. The new sloth will serve a different purpose from the Aviary’s 15-year-old resident.

After a 30-day quarantine period has ended, the sloth will become an educational exhibit. If you’re able to stifle your strong emotional response a la Kristen Bell, you can come get some face time with the sloth. A note: The quarantine is not because the sloth is a biochemical hazard, it’s merely to make sure that the little guy is healthy. There are no known diseases that can be communicated between sloths and humans.

Video by Aaron Warnick


“They’re not really susceptible to infections in general,” says Fish. “They’re one of the hardiest animals out there.”

The quarantine serves a dual purpose. While it is important to be sure that the sloth is healthy, it also gives the sloth’s trainers an opportunity to condition him for visitors.

“He’s going to get lots of treats, lots of food, lots of positive interaction,” Cathy Schlott, the Aviary’s curator of behavioral management, says. “We never make our animals do things here, we always ask them … we’re letting him know that if he wants to come out, that he’ll get lots of treats.”

Though the sloth is adorable to photograph regardless, the meal during City Paper’s visit provided some crucial conditioning that will ensure that he will be in a good mood when visitors with cameras visit. (You’re welcome, Pittsburgh.)

“Having this baby sloth is different … He’s in a pediatric program for his health and his training ,” Fish says. “You’ll be able to get very close to him and have one-of-a-kind one-on-one interactions with him.”

The Aviary is taking reservations for interactive encounters with the sloth when his quarantine period ends on March 25.

Along with the anticipated traffic that the new sloth will bring, the Aviary has found another way for the young sloth to pay his rent. His lack of a name is not from indecisiveness or waiting to see what fits. The Aviary will auction off the rights to name the sloth. Details on this process will be announced in the coming weeks, but a spokesperson confirmed that proceeds will directly benefit the Aviary.

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