School of Hard Knocks | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

School of Hard Knocks


"I want to make liars out of people who say Fort Pitt is a terrible school," says fifth-grade teacher Bennett Blaxter.

The biggest accuser last year: the federal government.

Folded into an elementary-sized chair and surrounded by kids, Blaxter looks for an instant like a fifth-grader herself. Standing, she's just 5 feet and change, blond, sturdy and quick like a softball shortstop. As she announces the next activity's reading groups, her voice -- one that a choir director would love, one that projects -- rings out over the near-constant buzz of her students.

After denying the request of two boys who insist they can't read together because they "don't get along," Blaxter manages to get her mostly 10- and 11-year-old charges murmuring over their textbook's story -- a biographical piece about Pittsburgh baseball hero Roberto Clemente -- within a few minutes. The kids have been assigned to pairs and pods, "sort of by ability, sort of by behavior," she explains.

Reading aloud is intended to improve the kids' fluency, to connect the meaning of written language with its sounds and cadences. Bounding from one spot to another, Blaxter lights for a minute on a group of five: "I love how you read ‘into the ocean' like that: ‘into the ocean'! Looking at the whole phrase. Not ‘in-to-the-o-cean,' like-a-ro-bot," she says, making her eyes glaze. They giggle.

"Into the ocean," a couple of kids parrot back, gliding along the phrase of eighth notes. This activity, like the others accompanying the story, is a technique prescribed by the district's research-based, citywide Harcourt curriculum and Literacy Plus program. It's exactly the sort of curriculum the federal government loves.

Blaxter is in the midst of her third year teaching fifth grade at Fort Pitt, a school that's considered among the district's toughest assignments. One of the largest elementary schools in the city system with 390 kids, Fort Pitt is a neighborhood school, drawing most of its students from Garfield and the Garfield Heights housing projects, and a few from Lincoln-Larimer. Almost all of its students are African-American. And in 1999, the last year for which the district compiled this statistic, just 16 percent of the school's students lived with both parents. More than 89 percent of its students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for the free- or reduced-cost lunch program.

The school's destiny is complicated by a drop in enrollment this fall, due partly to the opening of a charter school in nearby East Liberty and partly to the transient nature of the school's surrounding neighborhood. The drop caused some of the school's junior teachers to be displaced into other schools, although enrollment increased in fifth grade

Fort Pitt's fate -- or at least its reputation -- under the Bush Administration's "No Child Left Behind" law is riding on Blaxter's 32 fifth-graders and 30 more in a colleague's classroom.

No Child Left Behind is a federal law that adds ambitious goals -- and tough remedies -- to the existing federal education program, the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act of 1965. Among its provisions, NCLB demands districts hire more "highly qualified teachers," outlines a procedure for students to leave "dangerous" schools, and, in its most wide-ranging provision, requires a massive increase in standardized testing. Schools must raise virtually all students' scores on these tests to the "proficient" level by 2014 at a brisk, regular pace or face increasingly severe sanctions, possibly culminating in a school takeover or shutdown. Schools must also meet certain attendance and graduation targets.

The sanctions are the most controversial part of NCLB. But for the Bush Administration, they're the hallmark of education's "new era."

"Most of us celebrated the turn of the century [on] January 1, 2000," begins a "Welcome Letter" from U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige on the NCLB Web site ( "But for America's children, the turn of the century came on January 8, 2002. On that day President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law …, opening a new era in American education....For the first time, the federal government will invest in successful public education instead of continuing to fund a failing system."

Unlike many big-city districts, Pittsburgh's city schools are already in compliance with the "highly qualified teachers" requirements. And none of its schools has been labeled "dangerous." However, many Pittsburgh schools, especially those with a majority of low-income students, are a long way from 100 percent proficiency in reading or math, as measured by the state's annual standardized test -- the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA. To catch up, they'll have to raise scores at a rate seldom accomplished even by schools filled with affluent, parent-coached students.

Poor scores on the fifth-grade PSSA administered in spring 2002 resulted in Fort Pitt's appearance on the government's warning list. But the school improved those scores dramatically in 2003, getting enough of the next batch of fifth-graders scoring "proficient" to qualify for what the feds call "safe harbor." But to continue avoiding sanctions and the accompanying stigma, Fort Pitt not only has to repeat the feat with this year's test-takers, but improve it by several percentage points.

Only the fifth-grade scores on the PSSA determine whether Fort Pitt has met No Child Left Behind requirements. Fort Pitt is required to show "Annual Yearly Progress" -- a complicated measure that has been frequently reinterpreted by the state Department of Education -- and each state's implementation of NCLB is different. In practice, this means that each group of fifth-graders -- including most special-ed children -- must reach a higher level of achievement than the last.

"These kids come with a wealth of issues," Blaxter says. At home, they are not necessarily thinking about how to ace the PSSA. "My kids go through things every day I can't even begin to fathom. Garfield's a rough can read in the paper about shootings; that's where my kids live. I know a lot of these kids crave consistency, crave structure, because they don't get a lot of those in their lives."

Blaxter also agrees with other teachers and administrators that "the PSSA is such a hard test," examining not just basic skills (like many fill-in-the-oval tests of 20 years ago) but also students' ability to make inferences and answer open-ended questions, and to be savvy about what the test's creators might want as an answer. "I've never been a big believer in standardized tests. I know it doesn't nearly show what my kids are capable of."

Last year, Blaxter says, she was able to take time from her regular lessons to give PSSA practice tests "and our scores went up." This year, she says, they'll be pressed just to cover the material required by the district's math and reading curricula.

In this way, one requirement of NCLB could compete with another: the Bush Administration has stressed that the law requires schools to implement challenging, scientifically researched curriculum and teaching -- like Pittsburgh's Literacy Plus and PRIME Plus (for math), which were put into schools beginning in the 1990s. But the very fact that they are rigorous means less time can be spent training students for the PSSA. Ironically, all that teaching might end up depressing test scores.

Everyone at Fort Pitt stresses that they're in favor of No Child Left Behind -- in theory. It's important to measure achievement, they say, and to pursue it systematically. But punishing a school based on a test taken at the end of kids' elementary careers doesn't address the needs those kids have right now. Testing won't bring them a smaller class, remedial tutoring or the social and emotional support that many need to do well in school.

What would really boost achievement at Fort Pitt? "I would spend the money on staffing for small class sizes," says Blaxter's principal, Verna Arnold. "There's some research that small class size doesn't make a difference, that it's the quality of instruction. That might be true for affluent schools, but for my kids...I attribute our [test score] gains last year to small classes. We had 16 per class last year."

Next on the wish list: "I would spend money on a real technology program, instead of being limited to two or three [computers] per class."

Of course, personnel and technology are the two most expensive things a school could ask for; most of any school's budget is salaries. "After you pay for your staff, that's where you wheel and deal for what else you need," Arnold says.

"Teaching and learning is about more than money," she adds as a caveat. "But common sense says money's important." This year, some new federal grant money is available to Fort Pitt. Some theorists and critics oppose "throwing money at schools." But inside Fort Pitt they wonder: Will it be enough to make up for what the kids need?

"I'm definitely torn on it," Blaxter says of NCLB, "because I'm an optimist and I think my kids can do anything …"

As she pauses to consider how to express the other half of this opinion, she detects a wave of goofing-off bubbling up through the mumbles of reading. Due to a personnel issue largely beyond the school's control, Blaxter and her fellow fifth-grade teacher currently have far more than the ideal number of students. A third teacher was added earlier in November, but will teach only selected subjects. Blaxter and her colleague will still have the bulk of the school's fifth-graders the bulk of the time.

"Excuse me," she says briskly, dashing toward a far corner of the classroom. "Smaller class sizes would help! I'm at 32!"

From the federal No Child Left Behind Web site:

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is a landmark in education reform designed to improve student achievement and change the culture of America's schools.

… The good news is that some schools in cities and towns across the nation are creating high achievement for children with a history of low performance. If some schools can do it, then all schools should be able to do it.

"Fort Pitt is not a bad school," Principal Verna Arnold says, practically unprompted, as she urges visitors to join a small teacher-led tour of the school before her September Parent-Teacher Organization meeting. Arnold, whose expressive crescent-moon eyebrows float over deep, dark eyes, talks in the fortifying, clarifying manner of someone who hasn't given up on "policy" and "issues." But her voice carries the strain of someone who spends her days actually trying to square them with reality. Despite this, she's calm. "I don't believe in stress," she says later. "I don't believe in stressing my people out -- and that's hard not to do nowadays."

This is Arnold's second year at the helm of Fort Pitt, but she began teaching here in 1979, leaving only briefly to be an assistant principal at Allegheny Traditional Academy (a city magnet school) in 1999.

The PTO crowd Arnold addresses isn't even thick enough to fill the few folding chairs; there are about 20 parents and an equal number of school staff and community-nonprofit types. On the field outside, a youth football game has drawn a much larger crowd of adults.

"As I've said, ‘No excuses' is an important phrase at Fort Pitt," Arnold begins. "We've got the attendance; we've got to work a little harder on the achievement piece. We were considered a low-achieving school and we still are a low-achieving school. We're meeting our targets...but we need parents here helping us move up the scale. If you look at the math piece, you can see we're really on the move."

The percentage of students scoring "proficient" or better in math climbed from 11 percent in 2001-02 to 30 percent in 2002-03 -- a huge jump. In reading, the "proficient" group went from only 9 percent to 21 percent at the same time. Last year's scores were the highest in the five-year history of the test at Fort Pitt.

"We know these numbers aren't off the charts," Arnold continued, acknowledging that too few children overall are "passing" the PSSA. "It's kind of like losing weight: If you do it a little bit at a time, it stays off. We want our improvements to be sustainable. We did meet our Annual Yearly Progress" -- the NCLB requirement. "We're in ‘safe harbor,' which sounds a little better than ‘warning.' But we have a lot of work to do.

"The PSSA is no joke," Arnold tells the group. "It's hard, it's confusing, it's a testmakers' test. The people who write it don't know anything about this school, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania....But it's our job, no excuses, no matter what the test is, it's our job to prepare students for it."

This year, she says, for all students who score "below basic" on the district's own quarterly standardized tests (similar to the state's PSSA), teachers will keep folders documenting each student's academic weaknesses and the steps taken to improve them. "It's a lot of work for us," Arnold tells the parents, "but your children are worth it. We're doing everything we can to move our kids, and it's not just about the test. We have smart children who come to school with a lot of baggage that prevents them from learning at the rate they should.

"You parents represent 400 students," she concludes somberly, looking over the thin crowd.

Although the rhetoric of No Child Left Behind proclaims that struggling schools need "reform," Richard Mascari, executive director of half the district's elementary schools, says that stability is what's helped Fort Pitt. "That school was like a revolving door for teachers," Mascari says. "People didn't want to stay. But Ms. Arnold has been able to cement the staff." A stable staff, he says, builds a strong school culture in which teachers support one another and hold each other to high standards.

Scores on standardized tests other than the PSSA among first- and second-graders have increased, too. "There's very few kids ‘below basic,'" Mascari says, referring to the lowest of four scoring categories (advanced, proficient, basic and below basic), so the school's task "isn't going to be as hard" in the years to come. "They've worked hard to make key improvements. It may not look like much, but it is remarkable success."

When Fort Pitt was put on the watch list last year by the state's education department, it meant parents were allowed to send their children to another city school. The district would have been required to spend part of its federal Title I funding -- a subsidy intended to offset the disadvantages faced by high-poverty schools -- to pay for transportation away from Fort Pitt. Although no Fort Pitt parents opted to switch last year, critics say the rule could further damage struggling schools by encouraging the more motivated or resourceful families to pull their kids out. At a school-board information session in September, board member Floyd McCrea noted that if 10 to 20 students left, it could mean the loss of a teacher or program, sending a school on a "downward spiral."

Though Fort Pitt's in the clear this year, it will be required to let kids go again if it doesn't make Adequate Yearly Progress targets two years in a row. Last year's doubling and tripling of scores was based on improved scores among only 59 kids, Arnold says. "What people don't understand is that one or two kids can make a difference," she adds, moving a school up -- or down.

Because so many economically disadvantaged kids are "left behind" before they even begin school, one of Fort Pitt's tasks is to deliver the best remedial programs possible. This year's programs have been jeopardized by setbacks that go beyond the shifting teachers and larger classrooms in the fifth grade. In October, the school board denied funding for a tutoring program that Arnold says was helpful in raising test scores last year. And an after-school remedial program, which is targeted at students who scored below "proficient," attracted almost 50 percent more students than anticipated -- a good thing, except that there wasn't enough staff or a big enough budget to give all the kids proper attention. The program was suspended so the school could find a solution.

Yet Fort Pitt is not a static tableau of the "troubled urban school" or a midget-league Blackboard Jungle. By the end of October, solutions -- some imperfect, some genuine improvements -- had been suggested for each of these problems.

Complicating many students' academic requirements are their economic and emotional needs. Maintaining safety and supporting good behavior are as important as homework help, Arnold explains: "We have kids who come to school to get a Band-Aid to put on a cut. First of all, you need to get your kids in a state where they can learn. That may take two to three periods a day."

From the NCLB Web site:

No Child Left Behind puts a special emphasis on implementing educational programs and practices that have been clearly demonstrated to be effective through rigorous scientific research. Federal funding will be targeted to support such programs.

Looking up from the trenches, Verna Arnold says, "There's no extra money coming directly into the school. There's no cold, hard cash in the budget." Because school budgets are based on enrollments, the enrollment drop from last year has left a smaller overall school budget, and thus less flexibility.

However, she says, Fort Pitt has seen one direct benefit from NCLB, as promised, in the form of Reading First. This year, the district awarded a federal Reading First grant for 30 of its neediest elementary schools. The $16.2 million, six-year appropriation is the largest such grant the district has ever received. For Fort Pitt, this meant a full-time reading coach as well as money for specialized reading diagnostic tests for primary students. Students' results on the diagnostic tests tell teachers which classroom-based "interventions" they should use to target specific difficulties.

"We've had a lot of training," says first-grade teacher Daniella Serrao. "I'll be curious to see [changes] in the next two years. If they were looking at kindergarten, first and second grade, they'd see improvements."

Still, she says, "There's a few kids [for whom] you can do all these interventions and there's no improvement. I've had kids who can't do this group instruction. They're the ones who I feel are still being left behind. There's some who need more services than we can provide.

"They say ‘No Child Left Behind,' but what are we doing with kids that are hungry, who have trouble at home, who come to school angry -- you try to teach them reading and they're not interested. They don't trust adults; they have no trust for authority, because I guess the authority figure has betrayed them. It seems like [parents think], ‘You're the school, you provide the knowledge.'"

Another strategy Fort Pitt used last year suffered a frustrating setback in October, when the school board indicated it wouldn't support about $12,600 in stipends for six retired teachers who in the past had tutored students with the greatest difficulties. This year, reading coach Becky Lamanna (who had worked as a teacher at Fort Pitt for nine years) was to be in charge of the program. Because all of the tutors are certified teachers, trained in the district's reading curriculum (and three others are trained in another specialized remedial reading method), Lamanna says they were particularly useful in preparing students for the high-stakes tests they face. But the board feared their work might supplant teachers' union positions.

"It seemed like such a small matter," Lamanna laments. "Whoever made the decision never came to us."

Arnold's now asking if they might be able to work for free: "So far three have volunteered and I'm looking for more [community volunteers] through the East End Neighborhood Forum."

No Child Left Behind emphasizes research-based teaching, which is obviously better delivered by certified teachers than by untrained community volunteers, well-intentioned though they may be. But Arnold notes that volunteers "can still surely sit with the kids and listen to them read." She's also trying to be more flexible in her use of teachers' aides, using them as tutors instead of inside the classroom. "I'm not letting that situation daunt my spirits," she says. "I'll regroup."

From U.S. Department of Education Web site:

Since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act first passed Congress in 1965, the federal government has spent more than $321 billion (in 2002 dollars) to help educate disadvantaged children. Yet nearly 40 years later, only 32 percent of fourth-graders can read skillfully at grade level. Sadly, most of the 68 percent who can't read well are minority children and those who live in poverty.

It's 2:30 in the afternoon, the start of Fort Pitt's after-school program, and the fifth grade is restless: "How much you wanna bet we don't get snacks?" several mutter. The Fort Pitt lunchroom is packed -- the fifth-graders are sardined shoulder-to-shoulder -- with kids awaiting their afternoon treat before filing off to the after-school tutoring program.

Though they half-heartedly puzzle out worksheets -- the kids are supposed to be doing homework -- they've got their eyes on the miniature lemonade cartons and bags of chips vanishing before their eyes into the fists of younger students.

"Oh, they'll get more," one kid says optimistically. The optimist is wrong. About a half-dozen snacks are left by the time the fifth-graders go up; these lucky students plow snacks into their gullets before they can be asked to share. One boy has sneaked a bag of chips ahead of his turn, and a minor scuffle almost breaks out.

"We're not going! We didn't get snacks!" one fifth-grader protests as teachers try to move them along to their classroom. By the time they reach Daniella Serrao, their after-school program teacher, it's almost 3:30. They're supposed to be headed home by 4.

Still, Serrao optimistically dives into an activity, handing out copies of a short passage about one Junie B. Jones, the heroine of a popular chapter book. Serrao gets 15 big fifth-graders to gather onto a little discussion carpet. "I'm going to show you things about this that you didn't even know existed," she promises. "Because they're not even in the words. They're in the ideas!" Developing a habit of higher-level analysis, beyond basic comprehension, is an important academic need for many of Fort Pitt's low-performing students.

When an aide finally turns up with some sugar cookies and a gallon of grape drink, many of the students keep just one ear available for Junie B. Jones. But most do participate.

Fort Pitt's "After School Kids" program targets students who are not making it into the "proficient" category on the district's own quarterly assessments. It stumbled after its mid-October beginning, when 75 kids showed up for a program that had budgeted teachers (and snacks) only for 50. One reason for the larger turnout, Arnold explains, is that all the targeted kids' siblings showed up too. Teachers had volunteered for the program at a below-normal hourly wage, preparing to offer the kind of one-on-one instruction usually not possible in the classroom; however, they were finding themselves with whole roomfuls of low-achieving students, sometimes in numbers bigger than a regular daytime class.

The solution, in this case, was not transferring the students to another, better elementary school's remedial program; it was money, from the federal government itself: $625,000, awarded competitively under a pre-NCLB grant program that will transform Fort Pitt's after-school program from a Ford Fiesta to a Cadillac. The program's duration will double to three hours and expand from three to five days a week. There'll be twice-monthly field trips, and every day kids will get the prized snack, an hour of academics and a cornucopia of enrichment activities from cooking and gardening to drama classes from outside theater groups.

From the NCLB Web site:

Other [NCLB] changes will support State and local efforts to keep our schools safe and drug-free, while at the same time ensuring that students -- particularly those who have been victims of violent crimes on school grounds -- are not trapped in persistently dangerous schools. As proposed in
No Child Left Behind, states must allow students who attend a persistently dangerous school, or who are victims of violent crime at school, to transfer to a safe school.

As Fort Pitt's day comes to a close, a cheery, boisterous roil of kids rumbles down the steps and around the hall to the door, flapping their little arms inside oversized coat sleeves. Suddenly and almost imperceptibly the atmosphere changes. The stream of kids is jammed up. A small angry voice echoes off the pale cinderblock walls. Chatter becomes an agitated buzz. A woman's angry voice bellows from midway up the stairs: "Stop! Stop it!"

It's a fight. She yells a name, and overtakes her bewildered charges on the way down. A second teacher has arrived; a purse hits the linoleum and a cell phone clatters across the floor. In a few seconds the first teacher is whisking a surprisingly small boy away; beneath a one-inch lump on his forehead, his face is scrunched into sobs. The second teacher is trying to listen to competing narratives from the breathless piping voices of the spectators. "How'd he get that lump? He slammed his head on the floor!" she says to the third teacher, who's holding the accused, another skinny three-and-a-half-foot-tall boy, leaned back up against her body, her arm reaching across one small shoulder to the other. The boy's hiccoughing and trying to jump in:

"No, no, he was bothering me first!" he screams. The teacher holding him shushes softly.

"You'll have a chance to tell your side," she says. A few minutes later, he gets his chance. "I like how you're explaining your side in a calm voice," she says.

Before kids are ready to score, score, score on standardized tests, they've got to be safe. Addressing her small audience at the September PTO meeting, Arnold told parents, "I have instituted a very strict discipline policy....But a lot of our problems happen on the way to school and home from school. I'm asking for parent volunteers to be home-to-school monitors. We will get you a jacket. Just seeing you out there knowing you represent Fort Pitt will stop a lot."

A parent immediately stands up: "You really think that's gonna work?" she says. "You say something to the kid, you gotta argue with the parent." Others murmur in agreement.

"We're not asking you to be police," Arnold responds, "but you can call the school and we'll take it from there. I can't be on all the streets, but you can." No volunteers step forward.

"We have a huge issue of kids getting beaten up on the way home," Arnold says later.

"Parents say, ‘I want my child to take care of business,'" adds Gail Blakey, the school social worker.

"Every single child of mine says, ‘My mom tells me to hit back,'" Bennett Blaxter confirms. "A lot of the community's struggles are coming into Fort Pitt. The kids are fighting their parents' battles."

Because the school isn't on busy streets, it doesn't qualify for crossing guards. The district's 15 school police aren't assigned to specific schools; those in the East End are most likely to be monitoring situations at high schools or middle schools.

In its talk about "dangerous schools," No Child Left Behind focuses on individual kids leaving an unsafe school, not on how to improve safety for all those who stay. Though more supervision is a common-sense answer, the law doesn't suggest how a school can cure a learning environment that's frequently disrupted by emotional, though unarmed, fights among peers. Nor does it say what a school should do when kids' very neighborhood is unsafe, when their school building might in fact be the safest place kids go. A school isn't immune from the world that surrounds it, even if its pupils are mostly under 12.

One day in October, Fort Pitt was in lockdown due to a neighborhood disturbance. "We had two parents come up here angry," Arnold says of another recent day, "saying people are gonna die up here. Just like that parent walked in angry, they could've come in with a gun."

This year, former special-education assistant Calvin Womack is the school's first line of defense -- and prevention -- against in-school flare-ups.

Womack speaks to Shaun (not his real name), a teary, protesting fifth-grader slumped in a chair. Womack is speaking softly -- "But do you see how that made the problem worse?...I know, but you have to do your part, too." As they talk, the boy seems to simmer down little by little.

Sometimes three or four teachers are calling for Womack -- "Where's Calvin?" -- to talk to a student who's acting in up in class. Teachers hope such students can sit still and be quiet, but they can't stop the entire class to discuss "bad choices" vs. "good choices," let alone delve into whatever emotional need might be fueling the misbehavior. And there aren't chairs enough in the principal's office to send all the kids there. Hence: Calvin. Choosing to fund his position means forgoing other priorities, but Fort Pitt seems to get its money's worth. If funds permitted, Arnold says, she'd have a position like Womack's for every grade level: "We have so many children who could use assistance, someone to listen, to bond with, someone to mediate."

"You hear the phone constantly ringing," Womack says: "This child is wandering the hallways; this child is roaming off. I sometimes have to take children home. We have almost an abnormal amount of children who need that extra attention. There's a huge connection" between life and learning, he adds. "If our children aren't in an environment where learning is possible, where it's constant disruption..."

Like other staffers at Fort Pitt, he attributes last year's higher PSSA scores to smaller classes. To really get the kids achieving where they ought to be, "We need enough money to hire enough people to do all this stuff. We'd need to double the staff."

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