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How The Homewood Children's Village Is 'Re-Weaving the Fabric of the Community'

In the 19th century, wealthy white Pittsburghers, including George Westinghouse and Andrew Carnegie, created estates in Homewood, which was a pastoral and welcome respite from the foul air generated by the industry. 

By 1940, the population was diverse, middle class and about five times larger than it is now.

A number of historic events affected Homewood adversely: Construction of the Civic Arena brought an influx of displaced and poor African Americans for whom many of the single family homes were cut up into apartments. Riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination destroyed many businesses that were never rebuilt.  The failure of the steel industry put many people out of work. White residents left Homewood, as did wealthier black residents when federal anti-discrimination laws enabled them to relocate to suburbs.

Residents of the community today are almost all African American, dealing with high crime, low incomes and under-performing schools. The Homewood Children’s Village mission is to “improve the lives of Homewood’s children and re-weave the fabric of the community in which they live.” 

“Homewood is maybe the least livable neighborhood in Pittsburgh, the most livable city," said president and CEO Derrick Lopez. "Homewood only has 6,400 residents, 3,000 households, 2,100 kids. We should be able to truly help mobilize and move this entire community with a concerted effort.” 

Improving children’s lives means supporting the systems they need to succeed, according to Lopez: home and family, community, peers and schools. 

“When those systems are all working, our kids do well, and so I usually say that Squirrel Hill is a model system," Lopez said. "It has great schools; it has two-parent families; a nice community and peer systems through the various things they do with the JCC (Jewish Community Center) and the YMCA, and all of those systems that they’ve put together for their children. In Homewood, all of those systems are challenged.”

Hampton Conway, former principal of Propel East Charter School in Turtle Creek, grew up in Prince Georges County, Maryland in an African American neighborhood that met his needs. 

“You know that African proverb where they say it takes a village to raise a child," he said. "I’m one of those. I feel I grew up with a village. I had people all around me all the time encouraging me to do well, holding me accountable when I did not do well: church members, cousins, friends, friends of the family. I mean, that was a constant push. And I also was exposed to folks that are doing well that look like me.”

The Homewood Children’s Village works with residents, organizations, governments, schools and funders to bring what’s needed to Homewood’s children from birth through high school and beyond, according to Lopez. 

“We started partnering with PAEYC, the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, around birth to age 5. What do our children need to know and be able to do in order for them to be kindergarten ready?  Today we’ve actually pulled together Parent Partners — there are 12 of them — that have gone through a cohort of training where they receive professional development at what we’re calling the Early Learning Hub here in Homewood, and our children and families are benefiting birth to age 5 through that work.”

Homewood children may need extra support to succeed in school, which the Village is providing at neighborhood schools, like Westinghouse High, according to Lopez. 

“Twenty-six additional adults in the building — everywhere from the Heinz Endowment Fellows that were there," he said. "There were 10 African American men. We had Americorps fellows within the building; we had social work interns provided by the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. We had a range of adults working alongside teachers to help students navigate systems that they otherwise would be challenged by so that they could be more productive as young people.” 

Only 15 percent of Westinghouse High graduates were eligible for the chance to continue their education through the Pittsburgh Promise because of low academic achievement and 70 percent average attendance. 

“We also began to pilot work in our Bridge to College and Promise Fulfillment work, which was developing a college-going culture for our students to make sure they’re eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise,” Lopez said.

Educators say cognitive learning is based on developmental pathways: physical, psychological, language, social and ethical, some of which present challenges in Homewood. That includes language according to Lopez.

“Language development is not just reading and writing, but it’s how you hear things, how you speak, how you write, how you read, and how you interact with one another," he said. "And because school has middle class norms, if children haven’t developed language that is consistent with middle class norms, they’re not going to do well in school.”

Lopez said students need to master formal English. 

“Particularly with high school students, it’s important that you teach them that there’s a language of communication within the community where you live, and there’s a language of communication in the business and the academic world, and teaching that explicitly is actually as valuable as teaching them a foreign language,” he said.

There are also norms of behavior that have to be explicitly taught and navigated. Lopez called it code switching. 

“When you get into a business setting, you have to act a certain way," he said. "When you get into a football game, you act a certain way. How you look, how you act and how you speak are the first cuts kids get in life. If you don’t pass the “look”, if you don’t pass the “act”, if you don’t pass the “speak”, you’re not going to be given an opportunity to get a job, to get an internship, to get into a school because if people are afraid of how you look, act and speak, they’re not going to give you an opportunity.”

As to a special challenge for African American males, Lopez said they have been de-humanized because of assumptions about who they are. 

“That dehumanization has led to stereotypes and misconceptions that lead to harsh treatment that is even unconscious," he said. "Our kids feel that. When our kids feel that, they act on it. They act on an accepting, caring adult, but they also can feel an adult that’s either fearful, or an adult that doesn’t care about them as humans. And so it’s incumbent upon us — people of good will — to not think ill but to really embrace whatever the challenges may be.”

There is racial disparity in school discipline across the country and in the region, last year accounting for 19 of 20 expulsions and 90 percent of suspensions in Woodland Hills.

“What that shows is that there is a cultural disconnect between the teachers that are there and the young men being suspended because it’s not that they’re engaging in misbehaviors that are so egregious, but because there’s zero tolerance, minor things have led to referrals,” Lopez said.

In January, the federal government called on schools to stop removing students from the classroom except for serious rules violations. Besides the fact that suspended students are missing class and not learning, studies link suspensions to academic failure, dropping out and criminal justice involvement — what some call the school-to-prison pipeline. 

“If my children misbehave, I don’t put them out on the porch," Lopez said. "I try to figure out what’s happened, why they’re doing it and then I bring them back into the fold by teaching them. I asked my teachers that when I was a principal, and they got it.  'Oh, yes.' You should think about those children sitting in front of you everyday as your own children. So if you wouldn’t put your own child out on the front porch, why would you put that child out of the classroom? Figure out what’s going on; help them to navigate and make a better decision next time."

Lopez called on people in and around Pittsburgh to think of Homewood as part of their village. 

“We need the caring, consistent adults across the city to say, ‘I too am part of the village. What can I do in my small part to grow and develop children?'" he said. "There is room for everyone to step in and assist us in what we believe is a really heavy lift, but one that can be done for our kids."

Charlee Song has been covering news for 90.5 FM since 2000—an opportunity she considers a great privilege. She finds almost every assignment interesting and really enjoys working with both the veterans and interns at WESA.