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Pittsburgh schools working to make minorities feel at home

Joe Smydo

PITTSBURGH — Many high school history courses take a survey approach, giving students the highlights about many important events during a particular period.

Kenneth Smith has a different plan for the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ new course on African American history. Smith, a course developer, said students will study multiple perspectives on black history, gather information from primary sources and write their own interpretations of history.

The course is one of the school district’s efforts to improve culturally responsive education. The term means making curriculum and instruction more diverse, so minority students can better understand their academic heritage, feel comfortable in the classroom and be motivated to learn.

District officials and policy advocates said culturally responsive education is a break with European-centered education and an incorporation of the various racial, ethnic and social perspectives that shape a discipline.

“Columbus’ discovery of America is one perspective … To explain that as a fact isn’t a culturally responsive activity,” said Molly McCloskey, director of constituent services for the Virginia-based Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), a professional group.

The shift in thinking doesn’t necessarily come easily.

“The majority of teachers in our country are white, middle-class women,” said Jennifer Barrett, ASCD manager of professional development. “They need guidance.”

As in many urban districts, Pittsburgh’s minority students, overall, perform at lower levels on state math and reading tests and graduate in fewer numbers than white students. District officials hope increased use of culturally responsive education will help to turn the tide.

The effort here is playing out in various ways, from the new history course that debuts next semester at Pittsburgh Oliver High School to the selection of a diverse group of authors for students to study in English courses district-wide to making sure students get equal treatment in the classroom.

“I notice who gets called on, who gets wait time,” said Linda Lane, deputy superintendent for instruction, assessment and accountability.

Another upcoming initiative, funded by The Heinz Endowments, will involve the use of African art to teach such subjects as math and social studies. The pilot project will begin at selected schools next fall.

“We think it’s a critical factor in African American children’s development when they see their culture reflected in the curriculum and valued in the classroom and valued by teachers or administrators who may not be from the same culture,” Cecile Shellman, manager of the arts program, said.

Doug Root, spokesman for The Heinz Endowments, said the philanthropy commissioned a report on culturally responsive education in other districts. He said the report, not yet publicly available, shows the effects on student achievement to be “potent.”

The emphasis on culturally responsive education is one component of city school Superintendent Mark Roosevelt’s academic-improvement efforts. There’s also an external push — a settlement with an advocacy group.

Advocates for African American students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in 1992, alleging the district had discriminated against minority students with unfair grading, with a disproportionate number of disciplinary referrals and in other ways. In a 2006 settlement, the district agreed to take about 100 steps — including improvements in instruction and employee training — to better serve black students.

The new African American history course will be more rigorous than the current one, said Smith, an Oliver social studies teacher.

It’s designed to move students to a greater awareness of their cultural identity and make them stronger thinkers. It also promotes culturally responsive education by exposing students to the role of women in civil rights, interracial relations and conflicts within the black community, Smith said.

The district also established an equity advisory panel to ensure all children are treated fairly and a task force to work on the district’s racial achievement gap. The groups include educators and community members.

To foster a culturally responsive mindset, the district last fall sent a group of school administrators to the “Summit for Courageous Conversation,” sponsored by groups working for education equity, in New Orleans. Administrators also heard a presentation last summer from Carol Comeau, superintendent of the racially diverse Anchorage School District in Alaska.

Anchorage has a four-page matrix of strategies for promoting culturally responsive education. Teachers are expected to give various kinds of tests — so students have various ways to demonstrate mastery of course material — and to consider a child’s background in developing a personalized learning plan.

“It’s really trying to make connections in a more personal way,” Comeau said in an interview.

In Pittsburgh, some initiatives are still evolving under the supervision of Tammy Miles-Brown, the district’s new director of culturally responsive education. Lane said she’d like to involve the community in events that tout the accomplishments of district students.

“I think celebration of achievement is very, very important,” she said.

(The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)