It's 9:15 Saturday morning and a fifth-grader -- Shawn, let's call him -- is trying to get into his school, Fort Pitt Elementary, a city public school in Garfield. His usual entrance is locked. Shawn circles the building, dutifully trying doors. Finally, the custodian's entrance swings open and Shawn is greeted by the roar of the furnace.
"This must be the boiler room! I've never been down here before!" Shawn says. After gaping at the comic-book lair of pipes, Shawn finds a familiar hallway and trots up to his classroom.
"Just in time," says teacher Jackie Trevisan, whisking him into her room. Shawn's among only six kids with Trevisan today. Amazingly, not a single one is sullen or restless, bemoaning missed cartoons or precious goof-off time; most made it there by 8:30 to eat breakfast. In fact, they're better than during the week, more calm and engaged, less distractible. ???
Trevisan, too, is cheerful and unstressed today, in jeans and a ponytail. During the week, she handles nearly 30 students, as one of two fifth-grade teachers; today she has two teachers helping her. Although only half of the 50 fifth-graders show up on average to the "mandatory" (but unenforceable) Saturday sessions, those who do seem to feel a sense of occasion: As fifth-graders, they're the big kids, ruling the empty school at last.
Trevisan asks the kids to read a passage in thick workbooks published by the state titled "Measuring Up to the PSSA" -- the state's high-stakes standardized test, called the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.
The Saturday sessions are to help Fort Pitt's kids do well on the PSSA, which they'll start to take on March 22, as required by President Bush's No Child Left Behind law. In Pittsburgh, at least one other elementary school is also doing Saturday test prep. Since eighth-graders also take the PSSA, 900 students from 14 middle schools had a more elaborate Saturday program last spring, involving field trips with reading and math components.
Passed in 2001, No Child Left Behind imposes sanctions -- culminating in school takeover -- on schools whose students fare poorly on standardized tests. The law mandates that by 2014 all of the nation's public school children must test "proficient" or "advanced," which, if achieved, would be a new accomplishment in American history.
To add to the pressure, Fort Pitt will be judged as a school on the test-taking abilities of its fifth-graders alone (Pennsylvania is still introducing PSSAs for the other grades). Two years ago, in 2001-02, the scores of Fort Pitt fifth-graders were low enough to place the school on the federal "needs improvement" list. As a result, Fort Pitt-area students could opt to attend a higher-scoring district school instead, though only a handful did so.
In fall 2002, Dr. Verna Arnold, a former Fort Pitt teacher, was named its new principal. In 2002-03, that year's fifth-graders did several points better on the PSSA than the prior year's, enough to place the school in federally designated "safe harbor" -- a year-long reprieve from further sanction. Now Arnold, Trevisan, Bennett Blaxter (another fifth-grade teacher) and this year's fifth-grade kids themselves must beat the achievement, moving an additional 10 percent of the students up to at least "proficient" scores.
The kids get tripped up by over-analyzing multiple-choice questions or taking them too literally.
"Bennett and I are constantly saying, 'These people are trying to trick you. It's kinda like a game,'" Trevisan says. "We tell the kids, 'cross out the ones that are not correct'" in order to take a fair guess at the answer.
When fifth-graders started this year, Trevisan says, "They came to me at a third-grade [reading] level." Maybe as few as five kids out of the 50 fifth-grade students were on track to test "proficient," she says. Now, she is confident that at least a third and perhaps even half will reach that mark. It would be a significant improvement, but perhaps not enough to meet the No Child Left Behind requirement.
Other students may repeat fifth grade, in which case Trevisan might see them this summer. She says fellow fifth-grade teacher Blaxter has already signed up to teach summer school -- no longer just for kids who fail, but those "behind" as well -- and Blaxter's eager to recruit Trevisan. "How cool would that be," Trevisan says, "to have the incoming [fifth-graders] for a whole month?" By starting early, they might be able to come from behind.
Sherlivia Murchison's fourth-grade son came home in tears from Fort Pitt one day this year. His coat was missing and his bookbag was stolen.
"A lot of this was happening to my son and he didn't tell, he didn't want to tattle," Murchison says. She found out that her son had been bullied for months on his five-block walk from Fort Pitt. Often the fights went beyond the elementary school, she says: Older brothers and sisters of other kids would harass their younger siblings' victims.
"My No. 1 goal is safety, minus anything else," says Murchison, who recently formed Fort Pitt's first active Parent-Teacher Organization in several years.
"I felt the need for a crossing guard," Murchison continues. "They do more than cross our kids -- they're a mentor, they're an authority figure." The streets around Fort Pitt didn't rate a crossing guard because they're considered residential, but Murchison says some Garfield streets are very busy with bus and car traffic.
Besides a crossing guard, Murchison wants a school safety officer -- essentially a security guard -- in the school itself. However, by district policy, the small school police force concentrates only on middle and high schools. For Murchison, the need seems particularly clear: Three years ago, her 9-year-old cousin in New York was killed in a fight with another 9-year-old girl in the school washroom. "One of the worst things you can do is bury a child. They shouldn't have to wait for something like that to happen to put a guard in the school or a crossing guard," she says.
Once Murchison learned about her son's troubles, "I started coming every day" to the school. "And you know Ms. Arnold. She said, 'If you're gonna be here, I'm gonna have you do something.'"
Murchison had five parents at her last PTO meeting, and six at the one before. "A lot of parents would like to be here, but they have smaller children or they have to work," she explains. "When I got involved, communication between parents and teachers was strained. Teachers said [to parents], 'You need to be up here.' Parents say, 'When I send my kid, I hold you totally responsible.' They were frustrated with each other and everybody was frustrated with the kids not getting what they need. People who hold the money and the programs, at the district or the state, were nowhere to be found."
Having a PTO is an improvement, but parents alone can't handle every unmet need of their school, Murchison cautions. "The responsibility always seems to be pushed back to the parents. You hear a lot of, 'It starts at home, it starts at home.' OK: Where does it finish?"
"I think at first [Dr. Arnold] thought, 'Here's another hollering parent,'" Murchison says, "but now she sees me differently. And I have new respect for her, because I see her working." Parents have to push for things like a crossing guard, she says, because school staff can't demand everything at once from the district. "Ms. Arnold has to focus on the most important things, or the things she thinks she can get results on. I respect her for that. I've learned that she's good at being responsible for the school."
Lately, Arnold says, she's spent a lot of time as the school's principal trying to be responsible. "I've been at school 'til about 8 p.m. every night. It's all about data now," she says.
Since the beginning of the year, Arnold has developed a thick binder of reports that gives her more specific data about Fort Pitt's students than any principal would've had a decade ago, even five years ago. Line graphs track student progress on mini-assessments made throughout the year. According to one graph, the low-performing group of students has continued to lose ground. But in another, the two groups of kids with the lowest scores are clearly catching up with their classmates.
There are charts so detailed in their color-coding that they resemble abstract art. A section of a class roster shaded bright yellow indicates those who have moved to or from the school over the year. For some teachers, it's one-third or even half their class. Low-income families tend to move more than others and almost all of Fort Pitt's students have family incomes low enough to qualify for the federal free-and-reduced lunch program.
The data, Arnold says, "is good for our teachers. It's a true picture of what we're doing." If the results are disappointing, it still makes it easier to "look at the next steps."
Since September, Arnold added many new support programs to the school, starting with the fifth-grade Saturday sessions. In the fall, demand for an after-school program far exceeded teachers, so Arnold got the district to send federal money to cover the program's academics, arts education, weekly field trips and even the snack. Also, Fort Pitt will get five part-time tutors as part of the Academic Support Team program (see News Briefs, "'School Choice' May Turn Into 'Choice Schools,'" Dec. 18, and "Chalk One Up," Jan. 15).
"I have to focus on my main objective," Arnold says, "giving them support to go on to sixth grade, as well as the (PSSA) test. Even though there's a lot of emphasis on the test, we have to get these kids on to middle school and high school and shore up the academic skills needed to be successful."
The test arrives March 22. "I feel we did everything we possibly could do," she concludes. "We feel we're giving it our best shot."