Documentary critical of Oliver High, but the school has changed a lot

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Pittsburgh Oliver High School is singled out as one of the 2,000 or so public schools known as "dropout factories" in the new documentary "Waiting for Superman," which chronicles failures in American public education.

Pittsburgh school administrators, Oliver teachers and students contend that the documentary's characterization is a stale attitude held by those who have not visited the North Side school lately.

"It really hurts to hear that," said Derrick Lopez, assistant superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools in charge of secondary education.

The district's point man on a five-year plan to restructure and improve the city's low-performing high schools, Mr. Lopez is pushing significant changes at Oliver, starting next fall, which will include an extended school day and year, career academies and a partnership with the Community College of Allegheny County.

Mr. Lopez and others contend that Oliver is in transition, but its reputation maybe its biggest hurdle to overcome.

Academically, the school is still low-performing. In 2009-10, 25.5 percent of students were at or above proficiency in reading, a 5.9 percent drop from the previous year, according to the state Education Department's academic achievement report.

In mathematics, 19 percent of students scored at or above proficiency, a 3.5 percent drop from the previous year.

School administrators say there are reasons to be hopeful, because of strides they are making in changing student behavior. The culture that fostered low expectations and failure -- constant fighting and uninterested or unprepared teachers and students -- is a thing of the past, they said.

In her nearly four years in the edifice atop a hill along Brighton Road, Idez Columbie-Abreu, an 18-year old senior from the South Side, has seen a transformation in student and teacher behavior and expectation.

"I was afraid at first when I came here in ninth grade," she said. "There was a lot of fighting at school, kids hanging around in hallways; you would go into the bathroom and people were smoking and teachers didn't care."

Back then, Nick Tomasovich probably would have been one of the troublemakers. A senior from Bloomfield, Nick, 17, said he was one of those who flaunted his contempt for school regulations. He recalled that he often got into shouting matches with teachers when they asked him not to listen to music with his headphones or wear a hat during class.

That was the Oliver of years past, said Dennis Chakey, principal of the school.

The dropout factory tag "reflects an Oliver of a bygone era and it disrespects what is going on here and what students are striving for," said Mr. Chakey, 37, who was appointed principal two years ago.

Built in 1924, the building has a capacity of 1,260 students and currently has an enrollment of 450 with 37 teachers on staff.

The change in culture at Oliver can be attributed to a no-nonsense standard of raised expectations for students -- in their studies and behavior-- that Mr. Chakey brought to the school, said Robert Tennant, an English teacher.

"We know that wherever you set the bar is what the kids will give you," said Mr. Tennant, a teacher of 12 years in the city schools who started at Oliver at the same time as Mr. Chakey.

The new principal introduced a zero-tolerance policy on bad behavior, teachers and students said. Students caught acting up, fighting or disregarding school policy on hats, music gadgets and phones now face consequences ranging from confiscation of property to a 10-day suspension, followed by a stern lecture about their behavior and what teachers expect of them.

"We have established a standard of what is acceptable here in school and what is not. And the students are responding to that," said Mr. Chakey, whose strictness initially caused a whisper campaign among students.

"We thought he was an undercover police officer or something when he first came," said Ms. Columbie-Abreu.

The policy is yielding results. The school has seen no fights since last year, tardiness has fallen and misbehaving students can expect their parents to hear about it.

It happened recently to Janet Jones, a freshman who lives in Lincoln-Lemington. Janet, 14, who hopes to join the Marine Corps after high school, describes herself as a very friendly person who has a "bubbly and talkative nature."

She can be a distraction when she gets carried away in class, and because of it, her teachers have called her parents -- twice -- to discuss her behavior.

Mr. Chakey did away with the school's traditional homeroom period and expanded it to what the school refers to as the Period One Block. The hourlong period focuses on anything that has to do with a student's academic achievement.

"We talk about attendance, whether the students are achieving their academic goals, how to make sure that they are on track with their credits in order to graduate on time, calculating grade point averages and any issues they may want to talk about from school to home life," Mr. Chakey said.

The morning session gives teachers a daily opportunity to make sure that "we're keeping our students on task," he said.

Mr. Chakey said he has sought to engage parents and the North Side community through the Parent School Community Council, which recently met with parents at New Hope Church.

Creating a strong relationship with the North Side community is important aspect of Mr. Chakey's agenda, he said, because neighborhood violence often affects the climate inside the school.

"This year alone, we have already had four murders in North Side neighborhoods. When that happens, we have to be a place of comfort as a school," he said. "We need to have a relationship with the community around us so that we can better understand the life circumstances that impact all aspects of life for the students who come here."

Brice Hostutler, a special education teacher who has taught at Oliver for 10 years, said he has not seen such a standard of raised expectations at the school before.

"There is just a different mentality," he said. It started with Mr. Chakey's emphasis on the notion that every teacher ought to know where each of their students rank academically and how to help them improve.

To that end, a notice board in the teachers' professional development room is pasted with data cards that show a student's picture and data on performance in key subjects according to the latest state tests.

"I want them to be thinking: 'How can I help that student get better,' every time they see them, whether it's in class or in a hallway or outside school," Mr. Chakey said.


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