Pittsburgh Faison K-5 in Homewood is the newest school building in Pittsburgh Public Schools, but it is tackling one of the oldest problems faced by school districts: ensuring that all children -- no matter their family and neighborhood background -- achieve at high levels.
Eight years ago, the gleaming $20.4 million building opened in a neighborhood so crime-ridden that some parents were afraid for their children to walk to school.
In its first year, 2004-05, more than 60 percent of its third- and fifth-graders -- the only two grades then to take state tests -- were below proficient in math, reading or both.
Some years in some grades, it has been even worse, such as 2007 when 95 percent of fifth-graders scored below proficient in math and 88 percent in reading
The school -- which started out as the New Homewood Elementary School and then was named in honor of beloved longtime educator Helen S. Faison -- at one time was an arts academy.
In 2006, it was paired with Crescent, an old school building in Homewood, to make a K-8 school, with grades K-4 in the new building and 5-8 in the old.
This school year, Faison has been transformed once again, this time as a K-5 turnaround school with 512 students, a new principal, addition of a design director, replacement of 81 percent of the teaching staff and the ability for teachers to design the school's direction.
Jeannine French, district chief of school performance, said districtwide interventions -- such as changes in the core curriculum and academic coaches -- weren't significantly improving achievement at Faison.
"We decided we were going to do something drastically different," she said.
Rather than impose a model from the central office, she said, the district turned to a "true teacher empowerment model."
Teachers this year taught one fewer period a day so they had time to collaborate.
School principal LouAnn Zwieryznski and design director Jake House help support the teachers' professional growth and school design work.
On Tuesday, teachers will receive the playbook for the design they created this year and will implement this fall.
Across the country, some schools are giving more power to teachers, ranging from teacher collaboration to schools run by teachers without principals.
Ellen Holmes, who, as senior policy analyst for the National Education Association's Priority School Campaign, focuses on improving the nation's lowest-achieving schools, said:
"In schools that are successfully closing the achievement gap, this is a constant: this ability [for teachers] to collaborate, work together with your colleagues to problem solve what's in the best interests of your students."
At Faison, grant money is providing extra resources so there are additional teachers.
That includes $399,547 for 18 months from the Fund for Excellence, which is supported by local foundations, and $432,000 for three years in a federal School Improvement Grant, which required the school to replace the principal and at least half the staff.
Many of this year's Faison teachers have low system seniority, so about half of the staff is among the 285 city teachers who recently received provisional furlough notices.
Thus, Faison is expected to receive many teachers with more seniority but new to the building in the fall.
For this school year, teachers were attracted to Faison by the idea that school-based professionals rather than central administrators would develop a plan.
The school year began with a teaching staff of 39, including 21 recruited through a rigorous career opportunities process; 13 through a career fair and interview process; one from outside; and four who were placed in the school by Aug. 4. The school had more applicants than were accepted via the career opportunities and career fair recruitments.
"There's a need here," said Amy Boyd, who has taught for 22 years. "I do have a commitment to the students and the community of Homewood. I'm very happy at Faison and happy with the work we are doing as a team."
Cary Allen, a science teacher who has been at Faison since its beginning eight years ago, said that when it first opened, the school found combining students from multiple elementary schools challenging.
"We didn't have the success we wanted to have," he said.
Now, he said, the school has more focus. "There's a clarity to what we're trying to do. ... We're all on the same page."
Teachers began collaborating and working on their vision in the summer. They established priorities and worked in committees throughout the year.
They studied books on educational strategies together and, in small groups, visited successful schools in three states.
They also attended a conference in New York about what are called 90/90/90 schools, which are schools that are 90 percent minority, with 90 percent of students low-income and 90 percent of students proficient or better.
Becoming the district's first 90/90/90 school is one of Faison's goals. "I would like to see this within three years," Ms. French said.
The teachers have opened their classroom doors to learn from each other.
In this school culture, Mr. Allen said, "It's OK to say, 'I'm struggling in this area. What do you do?' "
The school continues to refine its learning environment.
The small group that visited John B. Stetson Charter School in Philadelphia was so impressed by the school's discipline that a second trip was made, this time by more than half the staff on a Sunday and a clerical day.
Stetson partners with Success Schools, which operates Pittsburgh's alternative school, Clayton, in a more restrictive way.
Anrica Raiford, an emotional support teacher at Faison, said it was "phenomenal to see a school in such dire need of structure and guidance" put into place structures that students responded to.
At the teachers' request, the board agreed to hire Success Schools as consultants to Faison, using $280,000 in grant money over two years.
Ms. Raiford said the Success Schools personnel will be "behind the scenes. They're supporting us."
Faison has been working throughout the year to establish structure.
The whole school works to instill the values of ROAR -- which stands for respectful, on task, appropriate and responsible.
Each morning once a week, the three or four classrooms that make up a grade level gather in their community area -- seated respectfully on the floor -- for a structured talk aimed at reinforcing ROAR and academic values.
To a teacher's question about what legacy they want to leave, students recently gave answers such as "knowledge" and "being a good role model."
The fifth grade is piloting a system -- expected to be expanded this fall -- of weekly placing students in three categories: concerns, neutrals and positives.
Those who are positives get extra privileges, such as wearing jeans with their uniform shirt.
Fifth-graders seemed eager to talk about the school year, so teacher Sabrina Stevens gave them a chance to do so in a "whip around," a routine in which children one after the other give their opinion or reflect on what another student said.
"We're learning more than last year," said fifth-grader Kymberlee Broughton. "This year, the teachers push us harder to do our work."
Classmate Dao Owens said that "bad kids" ran through the school last year, but this year is better.
Fifth-grader Shawn McGinester said this year there are "a whole bunch of strategies to keep order."
In a phone interview, Faison parent Diana Lockridge of East Hills said she is pleased with the changes at the school.
Her daughter, Deonna Lockridge, 5, is in kindergarten this school year, and an older daughter, Adina Jenkins, 11, previously attended Faison.
"I really like it better from whenever my older daughter used to go there. There's a different environment, a different flow of things," she said. "My daughter's kindergarten teacher is really active with the kids. She calls home. She offers help and stuff."
Now, she said, "I notice that concerns get addressed much faster and aren't taken as lightly."
She is concerned that so many Faison teachers are being furloughed, including her daughter's kindergarten teacher whom she called "a gem."
"Now they've got really good teachers in there and now because they don't have seniority, they're getting let go. That's a shame," she said.
As the school year comes to a close, the teachers and district officials recognize they haven't solved all of the problems in one year.
"There's still work to be done, but the efforts are evident," Ms. Raiford said.
This is one in an occasional series on teaching in Pittsburgh's public schools. Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955. First Published June 11, 2012 4:00 AM