A little more than a week ago, fifth-grade teacher Emily Kirk had one of the best days of her career.
She and several other teachers from Fairless Elementary School in the Woodland Hills School District took fifth- and sixth-grade students on a field trip aboard a Gateway Clipper Fleet cruise.
Students were told to dress in their "Sunday best" for the accompanying dinner and dance. She said it was "amazing" watching her students being served, mixing and mingling with their classmates, as well as students from another district.
"You know how when you change your dress, your demeanor changes a little bit? They were so grown-up," she said. "I was a nervous wreck because I wanted it to be perfect for them. ... It was just so many new experiences for them."
Some students asked her where to scrape their plates when they finished eating. Others tried to help the wait staff clear the tables at the end of the meal. The students are still talking about it, she said, and have written thank-you letters to the private donors who helped sponsor the trip.
The difference in her students from the beginning of the school year is "like night and day."
Getting such changes doesn't come easily in a school facing serious challenges in achievement, discipline and racial disparity.
The school, which is located in North Braddock and has 305 students and is 80 percent black, has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the district -- 97 percent qualify for subsidized lunch -- and is one of the lowest performing in the district.
On the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, only about 39 percent of its students scored proficient or advanced in math and about 29 percent in reading in spring 2013. Students did show growth above state expectations in writing. Like the district as a whole, Fairless has a racial achievement gap as well as a disproportionate number of suspensions for black male students.
In math, for example, 35 percent of black students at Fairless were proficient or advanced while 71 percent of white students were. In reading, 24 percent of black students were proficient or advanced, and 57 percent of whites were.
While black males account for 44 percent of the students at Fairless, they have made up more than 60 percent of students suspended there for the past three years.
Superintendent Alan Johnson has championed a district-wide initiative to close the achievement gap between black and white students, particularly black males.
In a message on the district website, he wrote, "This is a difficult subject to approach because it forces us to examine our beliefs and needs about school safety and school security in contrast to our desire to see all students educated to their fullest ability."
Mr. Johnson stated, "Equality of outcomes and the very best and safest school environment we can offer are not mutually incompatible ideas. But they are ideas that require that we confront truths that are often uncomfortable."
Fairless has reduced its suspension numbers. Last school year, about 25 percent of enrolled students at Fairless were suspended at least once, totaling almost 300 days out of school. As of March of this school year, the number of students suspended decreased by more than half, totaling about 70 missed days of school.
Fairless principal Jean Livingston said many disciplinary practices begin in the classroom and stem from the relationships students have, or have not, developed with their teachers.
"When the children know and feel that you care about them and have their best interests at heart, they'll work for you and do what you ask," she said.
Now in her second year at Fairless, Ms. Kirk agreed and said she emphasizes to her students that, regardless of where they are in the building, they represent her and themselves. Once her students fell into a routine of classroom procedures and behaviors, the entire learning environment changed, she said.
"They want to show what they learned," she said. "I have high hopes for these students and how much they've changed"
For hallway etiquette, students are expected to show SWAG, or silently walk aligned in a group.
For the first few months, her class was "kind of a disaster" in the halls, she said. The class would often be late for electives or lunch because she would turn them around and go back to the classroom until students fell silent.
In class, she said, students had trouble focusing and listening. They met the increased workload with resistance. Ms. Kirk, who had substitute taught in every other elementary school in the district, said she saw greater needs at Fairless.
"I knew from the get-go that I needed to push these kids," she said. "It's about teaching them the steps and process that makes them stop being reliant on the teacher to give them the answers. "
There's a direct relationship, she said, between student behavior and academic achievement.
"You could have the most amazing lesson planned in the world, but if you don't have expectations and hold the kids accountable for how they should behave in the classroom, it won't work," she said.
Jamiah Grimes, 10, transferred to Fairless as a fourth-grader. The self-proclaimed former "bad kid" said she's learned to love school and focus on her studies in part from her "other mother," Ms. Kirk.
"She taught me you don't always have to fight somebody to get what you want," Jamiah said. "You can settle it and talk or just walk away from it. You won't have to think about it anymore because you know you were the bigger person and you walked away from the situation."
One of her favorite activities in class is a version of "Simon Says" for vocabulary. Students create movements that match the definitions of the words, then perform them on command.
"I love this classroom," she said. "We joke around a lot, but we always get our work done. Ms. Kirk is about business. She wants you to succeed in life, and can see right through you. She can help you get somewhere."
Clarece Polke: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1889.