Pittsburgh teachers and officials to explore 'community schools'

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Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Nina Esposito-Visgitis said she feels "jealous" when she hears of the progress made at community learning schools in Cincinnati.

Next week, about 30 people from Pittsburgh -- including teacher union members, city residents and leaders -- will go to a community schools conference in Cincinnati to see whether ideas from there can be brought here.

Community schools -- called community learning schools in Cincinnati -- use the public schools as a hub for a variety of services for students, families and the community.

According to the American Federation of Teachers, the list of those planning to go to Cincinnati includes Curtiss Porter, the chief education and neighborhood reinvestment officer appointed by Mayor Bill Peduto; two school board members, Sylvia Wilson and Carolyn Klug, both former city teachers; and Eddie Willson, director of operations for the district's student support services.

The group -- which also includes parents, teachers and community members -- was organized by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and Great Public Schools -- Pittsburgh, of which the PFT is a member.

The idea of creating community schools was raised during the $2.4 million "envisioning" process of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The resulting report -- called "Whole Child, Whole Community: Building a Bridge to the Pittsburgh Promise" -- does not suggest community schools. The report remains under discussion.

Ebony Pugh, spokeswoman for the district, said Tuesday, "We're always open to exploring any and all models that could support students."

Earlier this year, school superintendent Linda Lane said the district has talked about community schools with the teachers union. Ms. Lane said she was actively involved in developing a community school in Iowa and found "it is not a way to save money."

While Pittsburgh Public Schools realized a $20.8 million surplus in 2013, it still expects to run out of money in 2017.

The mayor's office does not have any legal control over the school district, but Mr. Porter earlier this year said that he thinks community schools "seem to have some very positive elements," but he wanted to learn more about them.

The Coalition for Community Schools, which is sponsoring the national conference, defines a community school as "both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities.

"Community schools offer a personalized curriculum that emphasizes real-world learning and community problem-solving. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone -- all day, every day, evenings and weekends."

Ms. Esposito-Visgitis, who is unable to attend the Cincinnati conference, said she has seen such schools in Portland, Maine.

"It truly addresses the whole child," she said. "We're doing so many good things in Pittsburgh. I think we still need to find a way to address poverty and put our arms around the whole student. I think that's what the community school does."

Julie Doppler, community learning center coordinator for Cincinnati Public Schools, said the district began developing community learning schools in the early 2000s as it renovated schools in a facilities master plan.

It now has 36 such schools -- each with a full-time resource coordinator -- and intends to gradually expand to all 55 schools. Each site creates its own "shared vision," such as one that is family-centered and includes GED and parent programs, and another that is built on a health model, including eye and dental clinics.

Students who are identified using data and get appropriate services show improvements in achievement, Ms. Doppler said. She said the graduation rate also has improved.

She said the district uses grants and federal Title 1 to pay for the coordinators and said partner organizations have brought in "millions of dollars worth of services."

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

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