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00000176-e6f7-dce8-adff-f6f7707e000090.5 WESA's Life of Learning series focuses on learning and education activities, opportunities and challenges in the Greater Pittsburgh area.This multi-year commitment to providing learning-focused news coverage in southwestern Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Grable Foundation.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Nab $7.3 Million In Federal Grants

Five of the nine Pennsylvania schools that will receive federal School Improvement Grants are in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system, the state Department of Education announced Tuesday.

On one hand, it’s great news, because it means $7.3 million in additional funding is coming to PPS over the next five years. On the other hand, it means five of the lowest-achieving schools in the state that have not made substantial progress on state assessments are located in Pittsburgh.

That’s one of the criteria attached to SIG funding. Schools are also eligible if they’ve had graduation rates of less than 60 percent for at least two of the last three years.

But schools are also chosen on the quality of the applications they submit, and PPS spokesperson Ebony Pugh said she’s pleased that Brashear High School, Faison K-5, King PreK-8, Westinghouse Academy 6-12 and Perry High School have once again qualified for the grant program.

All of the PPS schools selected have previously been SIG recipients, and are in the midst of what’s called the “transformation” model. Schools choose one of four evidence-based whole-school reform models when they apply for SIG money: transformation, turnaround, restart or closure.

PPS title programs coordinator Tamiya Larkin said the transformation model requires rigorous teacher evaluation and high-quality teacher development opportunities.

Westinghouse Academy principal LouAnn Zwieryznski said the first year of the five-year grant period will be a planning year, and that she plans to engage students, teachers, in the community in designing specific strategies to meet the school’s unique needs.

Zwieryznski said one of the ways the school can improve educational outcomes is by better coordinating support services, such as mental health resources or housing assistance.

“Our students come to us with different needs, and there are services that are already in the community that our families may not have access to or may not know about,” she said. “So instead of recreating the wheel or recreating the service, having someone coordinate the services for the families, so they can have access to the things that are already technically there for them.”

Zwieryznski said after the planning year, she plans to hire an additional social worker and guidance counselor. There is currently only one of each at the school, which serves 516 students from Homewood, Lincoln-Larimer and the East Hills.

Zwieryznski said she also wants to help teachers increase their fluency in Common Core standards, though the overall goal goes beyond just teaching to a test.

“Common Core is one bar, but we want to make sure our students are prepared for life and college after high school,” Zwieryznski said. “It’s not about meeting the needs for a test, because that’s actually lower level than we’d like to go with Westinghouse.”

In 2014, just 8 percent of Westinghouse students were proficient or advanced in literature on the Keystone Exams by the end of 11th grade, according to A+ Schools. In math, the figure fell to 3 percent.

That puts Westinghouse at the bottom of all Pittsburgh Public high schools in terms of standardized test scores, but Zwieryznski is hopeful.

“Students inherently want to do well,” she said. “The bottom line is they want to know that they belong somewhere. They want to be part of an environment where they know people care about them. As soon as they feel safe walking into our school and know that we care about them … there’s nothing they won’t do for you.”