Pittsburgh Arsenal middle school honored for student growth
February 29, 2016 12:00 AM
Students from Arsenal 6-8 sing Friday during an assembly celebrating the school’s progress.
By Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Many students at Pittsburgh Arsenal 6-8 arrive at the Lawrenceville middle school already behind grade level. Dozens of children from immigrant and refugee families are learning English as a second language at varying levels, some coming and going throughout the year.
Principal Patti Camper is candid about the prospect of Arsenal ever winning an honor for the highest percentage of students proficient in reading and math when faced with those and other challenges.
“We always knew we’re never being invited to that party,” she said.
But then the district came up with a way four years ago to reward progress, not absolute achievement, on state tests. A student who started the year behind grade level, for example, would have to make more than a year’s worth of academic progress just to pull even, and the award recognizes that progress — whether the student started below, at or above grade level.
“It may not be that they are proficient, but they grew beyond the one year’s expectation for where they began,” Ms. Camper said. “We meet them where they are, and we raise them higher.”
The school joined six others honored by the district this month as STAR schools, which stands for Students and Teachers Achieving Results. Arsenal, Lincoln PreK-5 in Lincoln-Lemington, Faison K-5 in Homewood and Woolslair PreK-5 in Bloomfield for a second year ranked among the top 25 statewide for academic growth based on a formula developed using state standardized tests.
Pittsburgh Conroy in Manchester, Pittsburgh Student Achievement Center in Homewood and Pittsburgh Pioneer in Brookline met the standard using criteria the district developed for special schools. Teachers and staff at the seven schools will receive bonuses of up to $6,000.
Leslie Perkins, an eighth-grade math teacher and math department team leader, cited teamwork and communication among the Arsenal’s 18 teachers as a reason for the student progress honored by the award.
“It’s a community of teachers that work together to keep building the students up,” she said.
Ms. Camper, Arsenal’s principal since fall 2011, greets students by name as she walks the halls of the fortress-like school on Butler Street, which shares a building with Arsenal K-5. A former vice principal at Pittsburgh CAPA, she previously taught at Arsenal for seven years and demonstrates a clear understanding of a student population that is as ever-changing as the neighborhoods it serves.
More than 85 percent of 223 students receive free or reduced lunch. Sixty percent are black and between 10 percent and 15 percent are white. The rest represent, at last count, more than 30 countries.
Years ago, Arsenal was exclusively a neighborhood school drawing students largely from Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, Polish Hill and Garfield. Now, with Arsenal designated as one of the regional sites for ESL learners, teachers there spend hours preparing for a more diverse student population and make accommodations for every child, Ms. Camper said. In one classroom, ESL students might sit behind a laptop with Google Translate or use an image of a concept others have in writing.
Notably, the gap between black and white achievement in reading and math at the school was smaller in 2014-15 compared with the district overall, according to data compiled by education advocacy group A+ Schools.
Like some other school administrators across the state, Ms. Camper was disappointed by the latest results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, which placed her students at 40 percent proficient in reading and 15 percent in math. Before the new, more rigorous exam standards took effect, about half were proficient in reading and more than 80 percent reached that benchmark in math.
“There was a minute where I’m like, ‘Everybody just walk away.’ We kind of had to digest that and come back and regroup,” she said. “We raised the rigor, but not high enough.”
But the school focuses more on day-to-day metrics to determine student growth, such as achievement on classroom projects and understanding of certain concepts. Teachers note, for instance, when a student couldn’t solve a two-step variable equation and when they figured it out a month later. Technology is key in gathering that data. Some teachers use an app that allows them to record whether students didn’t fully grasp a lesson so they know who needs remediation.
The Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System — which measures how much students grew, not just whether they met proficiency standards — predicts that only six Arsenal students will be proficient in math this school year, Ms. Camper said.
“What makes us a STAR school is it won’t be six. It won’t be 223. … But I know it will be higher than six, because that’s what we do — we beat that prediction year after year.”
Molly Born: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @molly_born.
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