The Heinz Endowments is putting $1 million behind the efforts of Pittsburgh Public Schools to increase equity, reduce the racial achievement gap and help provide a smooth transition as Pittsburgh Oliver High School closes and students are reassigned to Pittsburgh Perry this fall.
The school board Wednesday approved accepting an equity and achievement grant, which will be awarded over 28 months.
"It is our shared goal with the Pittsburgh Public Schools that this grant be used to focus and strengthen their current efforts with respect to ensuring that each student has an equal opportunity to realize her or his academic potential," said Robert Vagt, president of The Heinz Endowments.
He said achievement disparities in Pittsburgh have "generally fallen along racial and economic lines."
One of the first expenses of the fund is the hiring of Pedro Noguera, an urban sociologist who is executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University.
At a cost not to exceed $80,000, Mr. Noguera will help the administration develop and implement an equity plan. He also will provide leadership and oversight of the Metro Center's work at Perry and Oliver.
Mr. Noguera's help will include recommending strategies and best practices that have improved academic achievement elsewhere and reviewing progress of the equity plan's implementation with the superintendent.
At a cost not to exceed $70,000, a team from the Metro Center will help provide support to the Oliver-Perry transition, including curriculum and instruction alignment; community engagement; school processes alignment; teaching and learning outcomes; and student engagement.
Each contract runs from March 1 through Aug. 31.
In an interview, Mr. Noguera said he has not yet visited the schools and has no preconceived notions of what will work in Pittsburgh.
"You have to learn about the school before you prescribe any remedies to the school. You don't come in with a prepackaged set of interventions," Mr. Noguera said.
"What you really want to do is build on strengths and address weaknesses."
At Perry and Oliver, he said the team will begin by looking at performance data and then look at what lies behind it, such as whether there is an adequate number of reading specialists.
He views student engagement as a key part of any successful school.
"It's amazing how often I go to school and they have no strategy for motivating students and getting kids to buy in on their own education," he said.
He said approaches that are interactive -- rather than passive learning -- can spark student interest. He also said listening to students is one way to learn what they need.
The team will look to see if there is a discipline issue. In some schools, he said, the students doing the least well are those who are most often suspended, thus losing instructional time.
In those cases, "we reinforce the problem. Part of what we have to do is figure out what's behind the discipline problem and how do you get that student reconnected to learning."
On the district's equity plan, Mr. Noguera will be looking primarily at how the central office supports efforts in the schools.
He will be looking at policies, such as those for professional development, deploying academic coaches and providing achievement data.
In many districts, he said, "The further removed you are from the schools, often the less clear you are about what needs to be done to support schools."
Superintendent Linda Lane expects to have an equity plan by July.
In addition to the work by the Metro Center and Mr. Noguera, the Heinz money will provide teachers with professional development for the Perry/Oliver merger. It also will provide training and materials for Beyond Diversity, a program to help staff members understand the role race and racism play in student achievement.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955