Northside residents should know this–there’s a hidden gem in our community serving middle school students well.
While Pittsburgh’s public schools (district and charter) continue to struggle in closing gaps in achievement and opportunity, like in so many cities across the country, there are some schools that are leading the way by achieving consistently better results with ALL students.
Each year, A+ Schools–Pittsburgh’s independent advocate for equity and excellence in public education–publishes a Report to the Community on Public School Progress that provides a thorough and objective look at Pittsburgh’s public and charter schools. This year the organization decided to provide data and analysis of the District’s results in a different way. For the first time, we interviewed principals at six schools as well as one student leader to find out what was it about their schools that leads to them getting better results for all children, and especially Black and Brown children.
Pittsburgh Schiller 6-8 was highlighted this year for being one such school. Schiller sits just across the river from Downtown in East Allegheny, near the Northside’s cultural attractions and some residential areas with high levels of family poverty, a factor in student attendance. Along with children from the neighborhood, it draws others through the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) magnet. School Counselor Lana Shaftic says the school provides “a calm, structured environment” and teachers who “bring instruction to life.”
The STEAM program, which started in 2015, likely is partly responsible for boosting student attendance. Shaftic says attendance is especially high on “STEAM Exploration” days because no one wants to miss those activities. According to Principal Paula Heinzman, the rise in attendance over the past five years is also due to Shaftic’s relentless focus on getting students to come to school. Shaftic says the teachers at Schiller are wonderful, but “all of the things that teachers do for our students, the time spent lesson planning, everything is for nothing if the student isn’t there.”
It’s no surprise that students who miss a lot of school don’t do as well as the students who are there. But it is surprising that missing only a couple of days a month can negatively affect outcomes. Missing 10% or more of the school year is known as “chronic absence,” a measure that takes all absences into account—excused, unexcused, and suspensions. Regardless of the reasons, chronic absence can lead to 3rd graders being unable to read at grade level, 6th graders failing classes, 9th graders who eventually drop out of school.
Heinzman hired Shaftic in the spring of 2013, a year in which 36% of Schiller students were chronically absent. That percentage dropped 10 points the following year. It halved in 2014-15, held steady the next year, dropped to 11% by 2016-17, and halved again in 2017-18. By 2018-19, the rate was 3%, compared to an average of 21% for district 6-8 schools.
During that time period, Shaftic and Heinzman created “Strive for 95” (referring to 95% percent attendance) and worked with staff to implement it, with support from the United Way of Southwestern PA’s “Be There” program and One Northside, an initiative of the Buhl Foundation. “Strive for 95” has three main strategies: 1) an adult “Be There Buddy” for each student with problem attendance, 2) outreach to parents, and 3) schoolwide incentives.
The goal of a Be There Buddy is to form a caring relationship with a student and to show that someone is counting on him or her to come to school. At Schiller, the Buddy calls home to introduce him- or herself to a parent, checks in with the student each day, and carries out a plan they have jointly created. The plan might include a morning greeting and an afternoon send-off, extra recess time, or specific rewards at the end of the day or week—whatever will get a student to “be there.”
To match adults with students, each staff member chooses at least one from a list of students who had problem attendance the previous year. Some take on as many as four. It’s an additional task for busy teachers, but Heinzman says her staff was persuaded by data showing how much Be There Buddies had boosted attendance at other schools. “Data screams volumes of how a program like that worked, and our teachers love data,” she says. “They want to do anything that’s going to work for our children.”
Along with the support of staff, outreach to parents is critical. Shaftic’s goal is to call a parent for every absent student. For chronically absent students, she says, a phone call is “a way for me to remind the parent, ‘They’ve missed x amount of days. We really want to get them here. What can we do to make it better?’”
With their phone calls and letters home, both Shaftic and Heinzman try to avoid “the blame game.” Heinzman notes that Shaftic “reminds me all the time not to pass judgment. We don’t know what that parent’s going through.” When she has a parent on the phone, Shaftic tries to uncover the needs that she can address. For example, she’ll look for resources for a parent who kept a student at home to babysit a younger child. She reminds parents that the school nurse will dispense medicine for minor illnesses, and the lack of a clean uniform isn’t a problem—the school has a roomful. Once, when a student missed the bus, with a parent’s permission the school sent an Uber to fetch him. In such cases, Heinzman says, “The next time something comes up, they’re willing to bridge that gap with us…It’s just a different conversation.”
The school has also had “some naysayers and some parents that have pushed back,” she says. “From my perspective, I think it’s because not all schools in the district are holding our parents accountable.” A few have made comments like, “My child missed 50 days last year and nothing ever happened.” Some resistant parents have turned around when they recognized that school staff genuinely wanted to see their children every day. “We love your child,” Heinzman tells parents. “We want them here.”
The third strategy, attendance incentives for all students, includes prizes for homeroom competitions, “cash” to spend at the school store, and field trips to locations that students help determine, with Kennywood Park being a popular choice. Heinzman says students who weren’t eligible for a field trip because of absences occasionally have asked her to intervene with Shaftic, saying things like, “I was sick—I just didn’t get a doctor’s excuse.” “If they haven’t had an absence all year… that’s reasonable. But if they have 17 other absences, that’s not reasonable,” she says.
In her view, it’s part of preparing students for the future. “If I’m working with an employee that has 17 absences, at that point they’re required to have a doctor’s note. We really are trying to relate everything for them to real life,” she says, “because real life is going to happen so fast for them.” For one thing, in high school their attendance will factor into eligibility for the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship, a much bigger deal than a day at Kennywood. Research also underscores the importance of showing up during the middle-grade years. Good attendance in middle school—or even improving one’s attendance—are key predictors of academic success in high school, mattering more than test scores or family poverty.
Teacher attendance at Schiller is also high, which Shaftic attributes to students and teachers holding one another accountable. Heinzman doesn’t miss school either. “It’s important to me because our kids get disappointed so much in their lives… When they walk through our doors every day they need to see us,” she says, adding, “They’re worth it.”
While she can’t make a causal connection, Heinzman says achievement is up at Schiller and disciplinary incidents are down. She has also noticed the beginnings of a cultural shift at the school. In the past, she says, the staff used to focus on the absent students, the “constant struggle” to get them to school. Now that daily attendance is high, teachers can focus on achievement. However, students notice individual absences more. She describes what happened in a class that had been celebrating a perfect attendance streak until one boy didn’t appear on the 13th day. When he returned, the reaction was not, “What the heck—where were you?” but rather “Oh my gosh! What happened? Are you okay?” For the teacher, “it was so wonderful to watch her classroom help the little boy because he had been struggling.”
No one at Schiller is relaxing, however. Shaftic, who credits all groups for the school’s success, says her job involves being “relentless and diligent” with students, families, and staff. They, too, must be relentless and diligent to make the program work.
“We’re never going to stop until we get to all of our kids being here every day,” Heinzman says. “I know that some people say, ‘Oh, you’ll never get there.’ Why not?”
To find out more about Schiller 6-8 and the other Pittsburgh public schools that are pointing the way towards improvement, go to ourschoolspittsburgh.org where you can read their stories, explore school data, and learn more about school options in your community and across the city.
Members of A+ Schools’ staff are available to present the Report to the Community to any organization interested in learning more. Please call 412-697-1298 to request a presentation.
This article is sponsored by A+ Schools. A+ Schools is the community advocate and leader for educational equity and excellence in Pittsburgh’s Public Schools. It serves as a community force advancing the highest educational achievement and character development for every public school student. Its core purpose and focus of work is to increase educational equity in Pittsburgh schools. For more information, contact A+ Schools at 412-697-1298 or visit: www.aplusschools.org.