ATA and King PreK-8 are yards from each other, yet they’re drastically different in terms of student success rates and public perception
By: Tyler Dague
This is a tale of two schools: Allegheny Traditional Academy and Pittsburgh Martin Luther King PreK-8. Separated by less than half a mile of road along the north end of Allegheny Commons Park, the latter was built in 1973, a geometric brown brick maze of hallways, while the former is a classic red Victorian schoolhouse dating to 1904. They share somewhat similar student pools on the Northside, yet they are poles apart.
Their proximity belies a vast distance in learning outcomes, teacher retention and overall performance that begs the question: How can schools so near to each other face such radically different experiences?
James Fogarty, executive director for A+ Schools, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on educational equity, put the differences in stark terms. “We have one of the best schools in the city on the Northside, and one of the schools with some of the greatest challenges on the Northside, and they’re half a block away from each other,” he said.
According to A+ Schools’ 2017 Report to the Community, only 32 percent of teachers at King feel the school is a good place to work and learn. In addition, 37 percent of students were chronically absent. The percentage of Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) students living near Allegheny Center who attend King, called the “capture rate,” is only 28 percent, compared with 36 percent districtwide.
In contrast, Allegheny Traditional Academy (K-5) boasts 85 percent of teachers who feel the school is a good place to work and learn, and three of the four teachers that left in recent years moved on due to promotions. The chronic absentee rate is only 13 percent, according to A+ Schools’ 2017 Report to the Community. As a writing magnet school, Allegheny Traditional serves children from the Northside and students citywide, who are admitted through the district lottery system.
“Buying into King”
Dwayne Barker of Northview Heights has been a volunteer at King for more than a decade, beginning when his now-teenage son was in preschool. Starting with the early childhood committee, he was soon drafted to the policy council and then became chair of the Male Fatherhood Involvement Committee. The few men that were involved embraced Barker’s leadership and asked him to chair the committee.
“I’d never done this,” Barker said. “I was always a negative leader in life because I never knew how to be a positive leader.”
During this transition, Barker asked parents about what they thought of the school. When they made negative comments, he would respond by encouraging them to take responsibility and find solutions themselves.
“I put that spiel out there for a couple years, and I sat down one day and realized I was a hypocrite,” Barker said. “Some people are players and some are coaches, and I felt like I needed to come up with a playbook of how to navigate through some of the difficulties.”
That playbook became a proposal for the Parent Community Volunteer Network, an organized group of active, community-minded mentors for events and outreach. The proposal was quickly shelved. But in 2012, Barker pleaded for unity in a fractured committee meeting.“You know how you have the cartoons where it’s just a cloud of people fighting,” Barker said. “And after all the dust settled, I had said, ‘Now folks, forgive me for my ignorance, but I feel like I have an answer to our dilemma.’ And I reintroduced the proposal.”
In the six years since the proposal was approved, the Volunteer Network has been given its own cheerily decorated room in King’s building and hosted events such as “Doughnuts with Dads” and “Muffins with Moms” to get parents involved. Its members also sent mentors out to Allegheny Traditional, Pittsburgh Manchester K-8 and Manchester Academic Charter School.
Despite Barker’s successes, the figures remain grim for King. The school has had three principals in the last six years and nearly a quarter of the teachers are new. In 2017, King’s students failed to meet state grade level standards in math or English/language arts.The Volunteer Network also has taken on bus safety and transportation, particularly in the Northview Heights area.
“When PPS made the decision to close the Northview Heights school and have those students go mostly to King but some to Morrow, you created a transportation issue,” Fogarty said. “Before, you had kids walking to their school. There are still a bunch of kids up there, but now they have to get on a bus to King.”
According to Barker, three or four buses travel from Northview Heights to King, and he mentioned new neighborhood efforts to address the issue head-on. “It’s a major safety issue, and we’re calling on the community to answer the call,” Barker said. “But then, we’re also there to listen to their challenges and see what we can do collectively.”
Janet Bynum, a second-grade teacher and lifelong resident of the Northside, repeated several times the importance of parents, students and the greater community “buying into King” as she and other teachers have.
“First of all, King is misunderstood,” Bynum said. “If people would see what we do and see the successes of our children, and see that we have some of the same concerns, maybe their views would be different.”
Teacher safety also has been a concern at King. Three assaults by students or parents were reported by news outlets in October. According to KDKA reports, teacher Janice Watkins was attacked and beaten by the mother of a student for confiscating the 10-year-old’s cell phone, a fifth-grader punched a teacher in the face, and an eighth-grader pushed a security guard down a flight of stairs, which prompted a visit from PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet.
Bynum and Barker cited the negative publicity King receives as detrimental to their overall mission of helping students. In particular, Barker pointed out traditional media for filming footage at King for seemingly any negative story related to Pittsburgh Public Schools.
In 2016, WPXI’s Aaron Martin reported on PPS testing for lead levels as he stood in front of the King building. Martin glossed over King’s proactive measures and used it for background footage even though the results of the voluntary testing focused on Pittsburgh Langley school instead.
“But guess what?” Barker said. “Pittsburgh King was already ahead of the other schools. We already had the water fountains installed prior to the actual lead situation that went mainstream.”
Despite damaging attention to the school, Bynum was proud to show off her students’ improvements in reading. Two second-grade students said they went from reading around 30 words a minute to more than 100.
“People also may wonder what good may come out of the Northside,” Bynum said. “Well, here you have it. I know my students are successful. Are they all where I want them to be? No, but they’re making strides.”
*Note: King Elementary Principal Leah McCord was unavailable for comment
ATA Setting City Standards
Meanwhile, Allegheny Traditional Academy (K-5) is excelling in all measures, according to A+ Schools. Students exceeded state standards in math and English/language arts. The school population has increased from 426 students in 2011 to 563 students this year, according to Principal Molly O’Malley-Argueta.
“I think Allegheny Traditional is one of the best schools in the city not just because of its outcomes but also their programs and how students of all backgrounds are doing in that school,” Fogarty said. “They’re doing well compared to district averages and stage averages. That’s taken some time to get there. It is a school that stands out in terms of how all students are doing.”
Fogarty points to the clear structure and principles under which Allegheny Traditional functions. The “traditional” name is no accident. It reflects the school’s magnet focus, not only on writing but on rigorous character expectations.
Erin Bellinger, a 14-year kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Allegheny Traditional, said parents and students sign a code of conduct at the beginning of the school year on behavior and accountability.
“When we have our kindergarten orientation, it’s very transparent for [O’Malley-Argueta] to say, ‘If your child can’t be successful in this environment, this isn’t the place for them because the expectations are very high,’” Bellinger said. “It can’t be focusing on one child and that behavior all the time and ignoring the other 23.”
O’Malley-Argueta, who grew up in Brighton Heights and now resides in Observatory Hill, argued that the code of conduct is only the first step in cultivating high standards for learning environments, noting the routines and rituals at Allegheny Traditional on a daily basis and consistent parent-teacher communication. She also mentioned their emotional support classroom, a unique feature among PPS elementary schools.
“We have students from all over the city of Pittsburgh that are emotional support students, and they’re in our school,” O’Malley-Argueta said. “Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh, you’re a magnet school. You get all the good kids. When anybody’s bad, you just kick them out.’ That’s not really the case. For the most part, we retain our students.”
Allegheny Traditional also has two programs that have flourished in the last few years. The Children’s Innovation Project, currently grades K to 2, introduces children to concepts like how and why things such as circuits and batteries work.
The second program, Positive Behavior Inclusive System (PBIS), was initially a partnership with Pittsburgh Faison. While PBIS is not exclusive to ATA, the program helps focuses on accountability and incentives for good behavior rather than punishing students for bad behavior.
“[PBIS has] lots of positive reinforcements,” Bellinger said. “There is lots of daily or weekly communication, depending on the grade level, that goes home, so parents know immediately. For kindergarten, they have a monthly folder they sign out. The older grades have a weekly. It’s a good way to self-monitor.”
Unlike King’s issues with safety, reputation and parental involvement, Allegheny’s issues appear less egregious. Bellinger discussed larger class sizes in recent years and the limited parking near the school building as the primary difficulties facing Allegheny Traditional.
After-school Programs Help even playing field
One of the biggest similarities between the schools is their partnerships with Urban Impact. The faith-based Northside outreach organization has paid staff and volunteers assist Allegheny Traditional and King students with literacy and math support within the classroom.
“Urban Impact, each year, has gotten a little more involved here,” Bellinger said. “They started with an after-school program that was specifically music based. We have tutors that come three to four days a week that work with each classroom.”
“Two of [the tutors] went on the field trip with us. I think it’s been about five years. They’ll do small activities with the kids. They’ll buy them gifts when they don’t have to,” Bynum said.
Something else discussed that both schools share is the access to a wealth of educational institutions and resources on the Northside such as the Children’s Museum and the National Aviary. Still, recognizing the significant disparities in education quality, the Buhl Foundation-funded One Northside revitalization effort has brought dozens of after-school organizations together to try to bridge the gaps for students across the area.
“The Buhl Foundation’s efforts to create a connected 0-20 experience for children in the Northside can’t be applauded enough,” Fogarty said. “What they’ve done in engaging that community – they have a real clear set of emphases for different age bands. I think the Northside is poised to take off, and there’s a lot of good thinking and connectivity that’s happening to make that work.”
A key figure in One Northside’s committee is Shannon Phy, education director at the Mattress Factory. She chairs the transportation committee and is a member of the early childhood committee. And while she said many students that attend programs come from Allegheny Traditional, the museum partnered with King’s art teacher, Benjamin Rettig, last year on a permanent mural project.
“…When you have people that have bought into it and are sacrificing their time, their energy, all you can have is success after that.”
— Janet Bynum
“For a while, it felt that we were putting our resources out into a lot of different areas,” Phy said. “And with the help of One Northside and Buhl, it’s been nice the last few years to really focus on the Northside. We want to offer ourselves as a resource to the schools that we have here, the families that we have here.”
To that end, the Mattress Factory developed a wide variety of free programming, including community days on PPS off-days such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, free tours for PPS groups and free admission for educators.
“We have gotten a number of King families coming in because we’re in the neighborhood,” Phy said. “When I first started here, those free community days, we would maybe see 250 on the high end. Our family day that we have every year – the last one had 700 people.”
Argueta also touted the benefits of One Northside, particularly the trauma training led by Dr. Anthony Mannarino, director of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital. She also talked about a crisis response team that’s in the works and a $5,000 grant opportunity for Northside schools.
“Bigger picture, what Buhl is trying to do is change the culture,” O’Malley-Argueta said. “They’re providing resources and connections to the schools in order to better help students. It’s a process.”
In regard to helping the greater school community, O’Malley-Argueta said “our doors are always open,” and she discussed working in the past with King Principal Leah McCord on an integrated science and math classroom.
While the secret is clearly out about Allegheny Traditional, according to Bynum, a former vice principal said, “King is one of the best-kept secrets on the Northside.” With resources like Urban Impact and One Northside, the differences between the two schools may not be so stark in the coming years.
“You always have to turn the camera back on yourselves,” Bynum said. “What can I do to make it better? Even though we have some concerns, when you have people that have bought into it and are sacrificing their time, their energy, all you can have is success after that.”
This article was last updated on Monday, May 7 at 11:52 a.m.