Three Pittsburgh schools named STARs for high scores

Achievements yield big bonuses to teachers


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Fourth-grader Olivia Russell thinks it's "awesome" her school, Pittsburgh Whittier K-5 on Mount Washington, has been named a STAR school for the second year in a row, one of only three schools districtwide honored for academic growth.

"It's actually cool you have a little title, and it's fun to have that," she said.

Announced Tuesday, all three schools -- Whittier, Sunnyside PreK-8 in Stanton Heights and Conroy, a North Side school serving special needs children -- have earned STAR status in each of the first two years of the program.

Teachers and other professionals at STAR schools receive bonuses of up to $6,000 each. Paraprofessionals and technical-clerical workers represented by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers receive bonuses of as much as $2,000.

In all, 143 staff members are sharing $524,570 in bonuses, 70 percent of which is paid for by a federal grant.

The announcement came shortly after the district released the bonuses for 57 principals, totalling $114,979 and averaging $2,017.

Pittsburgh Public Schools last year began naming STAR schools -- which stands for Students and Teachers Achieving Results -- for high academic growth based on state test scores. Reading and math results count more than science and writing in the value-added measurement.

In the first year, there were eight regular schools -- including one that had closed -- and three special schools earning the honor based on results in 2010-11 and 2011-12. At that time, more than 500 staff members received bonuses totaling about $2.1 million.

This time there are three schools based on test results in 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Overall, Pittsburgh had disappointing test scores in 2011-12 and 2012-13, resulting in fewer schools showing high rates of growth.

Because they were in the top 25 percent in the state, Whittier and Sunnyside teachers and other professionals are receiving bonuses of up to $5,000, and other PFT members are receiving up to $1,650, prorated based on their assignments to the buildings.

In the first year, some schools were in the top 15 percent in the state, making staff eligible for bonuses of up to $6,000, but none was in the top 15 percent this time.

The district's special schools are rated by different criteria specific to the needs of the students they serve but designed to be equally rigorous. That makes Conroy teachers eligible for bonuses of up to $6,000.

Conroy serves 163 students ages 5 to 21 who have cognitive delays, many of them on the autism spectrum.

Whittier, which has 268 students, and Sunnyside, which has 343 students, are regular schools serving assigned feeder populations.

Superintendent Linda Lane, who visited the schools Tuesday, said, "What I saw in all three schools are people who are working together.

"It's amazing what can happen when that cooperation is in place, and we're all clear on what we're trying to accomplish here and we're going to put in everything we can."

Michael Perella -- who is in his first year as Whittier principal after the retirement of Elaine Wallace -- said there is little teacher turnover at the school.

Whittier had to adapt to change when Prospect closed in 2006 and its students were assigned to Whittier.

Faced with the challenges of the merger, first-grade teacher Lauren Scanga said the school developed positive behavior supports to help the school run smoothly.

In 2012-13, Whittier's teaching and learning environment survey showed that 100 percent of teachers said students understand the expectations for their conduct and believe students treat peers with respect.

Teachers within the school feel empowered to teach in the best ways to help their students and work together, said kindergarten teacher Bonnie Milanak.

"The staff really is a family," she said.

Even when students have moved onto the next grade, teachers continue to follow their progress, offer suggestions to the next teachers and, when necessary, become a mentor for a student who is having difficulty but is no longer in their class. Many teachers can be found tutoring students on their lunch hour, she said.

Mr. Perella also thinks parent involvement plays a key role in success, with monthly activity nights that attract 100 to 150 parents and students.

At Conroy, Rudley Mrvos, in his 19th year as principal, noted the close relationships of teachers, students and parents, saying success is "teamwork and a deep caring for the children."

At Sunnyside, Laura Dadey, principal since 2003, said success is a combination of factors, including teachers and parents supporting high expectations.

"The students buy into it. They see the importance of the hard work," she said.


Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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