Federation forum highlights changes to PPS and the Promise

Federation forum highlights changes to PPS and the Promise

Nearly 100 people gathered in Levinson Hall at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill for a back-to-school conversation. The Aug. 17 forum featured presentations from Linda S. Lane, superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, a nonprofit organization committed to sending all eligible urban youth to college or trade school with a scholarship. Jeffrey H. Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, introduced Lane and Ghubril as well as moderated questions.

Finkelstein said that the forum’s objective was to inform the community of developments in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Pittsburgh Promise. Although the forum was the first that Finkelstein remembered holding during his 11-year reign at the Federation, he said that the Federation’s involvement with public schools spans decades.

The Federation has a vested interest in maintaining strong schools, he said. “It’s all circular.”

Good schools make good communities; they all work to strengthen each other, he said.

“When we get a chance to partner with organizations like the Federation, it works well for us,” said Lane.

With its vast network of contacts, the Federation has an ability to gather large groups, she added. “This is a nice way to have these kinds of engagements.”

For her part, Lane divided her presentation into a retrospective on past happenings and expectations for the upcoming year. She shared anecdotes of student and faculty accomplishments, such as grants received, awards won and commencement exercises as well as a vision for pedagogical changes. With a nod toward changing times, Lane explained that recitation of simple facts won’t serve today’s students; Google and other Internet sources can provide most answers. Instead, she insisted, the Pittsburgh Public Schools will place more focus upon advancing students’ thinking.

“Learning is thinking,” said Lane. “We want to encourage complex thinking and elaborated communication.”

One mechanism for achieving this is STEAM, which combines multiple disciplines into project-based learning to help students gain a better understanding of how science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics relate to the real world.

Following a 2014 approval from the Pittsburgh Public School Board, several STEAM programs will occur throughout the district. Notably, space will be opened at Pittsburgh Woolslair PreK-5 through a partial STEAM-themed magnet; enhancements will be made to Pittsburgh Lincoln PreK-5’s Technology and Pre-Engineering program; a STEAM magnet will be phased in at Pittsburgh Schiller 6-8; and the Bio-Technology program at Pittsburgh Perry High School will be strengthened.

Following Lane’s remarks, Ghubril presented seven years’ worth of data on the Pittsburgh Promise. Since its inception in 2007, the Promise has provided more than $64 million in scholarships to nearly 5,600 graduates of the Pittsburgh Public high schools or schools chartered by Pittsburgh Public. With a stated goal of raising $250 million, Ghubril has already brought in $176 million in pledges (of which $117 million has been received). To date, 4,100 donors, 148 corporations and 120 foundations have supported the Promise.

While Ghubril maintained that the purpose of his presentation was to provide data, much of his rhetoric concerned recent changes to the program. Ghubril stated that in order to ensure the program’s longevity, particular changes were made to the scholarship structure. Beginning with the class of 2017, the Promise will return to its original structure of paying only for tuition and fees (not room and board); additionally, the annual maximum scholarship award will be adjusted to $7,500 or $30,000 over four years. This is a reduction from $10,000 annually or $40,000 over four years.

“Two hundred fifty million spent this way will get us to the class of 2028,” said Ghubril.

Ghubril said the changes ensure the program’s continuing existence.

“It grieves me that we had to create this change and that it creates a hardship for some families, but the data is the data and the story is the story,” said Ghubril. At the end of the day, “more kids are finishing high school, going to college and graduating from college.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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