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‘A major culture shift’: Pitt program gets funding boost to get more city students into college

University of Pittsburgh

Four years after Mae Knight graduated from Westinghouse 6-12 school in Homewood, she returned — as a teacher with a mission to shift the culture.

Knight was in the first cohort of students in a University of Pittsburgh program that prepares them for college with rigorous coursework, something Knight says Westinghouse was lacking. The Justice Scholars Institute out of the University of Pittsburgh recently received a half million-dollar grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation to expand its work and reach more students.

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While Knight was in high school, she advocated for more rigorous coursework for the school, which teaches mostly Black and low-income students. At the time, the school had the district's lowest number of Advanced Placement courses, which help students earn college credits if they pass a final test.

“[Board members and administrators] say we don’t deserve to get these classes because we’re just going to fail, which is prejudiced,” Knight said. “How do you know, when we haven’t been given a chance? Or if we haven’t been given the adequate early childhood or elementary school education to be able to do these things at this level? It’s not really fair.”

The Justice Scholars Institute has worked with Westinghouse 6-12 since 2016. Last year the program expanded to Perry in the North Side and University Preparatory 6-12 in the Hill District. The three schools are among the lowest-performing schools in the city school district.

The institute trains educators in the schools to teach courses that earn students college credits while in high school. Freshmen and sophomores meet with college mentors and learn how to stay on track to attend college. In their junior and senior years, students take Pitt College in High School courses such as U.S. History, Introduction to Social Justice and Argument. They meet weekly to reinforce their study skills, visit Pitt’s campus, and ultimately complete a research project on social issue they choose.

Knight says for her, the writing skills were key to her future success at LaSalle University in Philadelphia.

“They showed us how to find scholarly research, scholarly articles, peer-reviewed resources," she said. "It was basically an introduction to not only college writing but research and statistics. It gave me a lot of critical thinking skills as well.”

The focus on writing is intentional. Many educational policy researchers and scholars now question the equity of AP courses, which are tied to a test. Students could complete a rigorous course for an entire year and not receive credit if they don’t pass a test.

Justice Scholars founder and director Esohe Osai wants students to focus more on the process and experience of learning.

“Learning is not just an outcome gauged by your score on a test,” she said. “From our vantage point as partners at Pitt, we want [teachers] to have this equity kind of position where they’re thinking more about what it means to provide high-quality education to students in these kind of educationally marginalized communities.”

Knight, who began teaching middle school special education in mid-2021, said she’s recognized a change in Westinghouse since the first cohort of justice scholars. She often takes her students to the library where students were working on their research projects.

“Even just seeing that is a major culture shift from when I went to school there,” she said. “Having the different college acceptance events and getting to take my kids to them … it inspires them to keep going, and it shows a culture of academic excellence.”

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Perry High School on Pittsburgh's North Side now also participates in the Pitt program.

Expanding the program

Most of the students in the program go on to be the first in their family to attend college. The experience can come as a shock, Osai said.

“Think about what their life looks like beyond high school," she said. "Sometimes students stumble into adulthood kind of like by chance and they finish high school and think what’s next?"

It’s a steep learning curve. Without familial knowledge, students often turn to their former teachers or program coordinators for support.

While Osai is proud of that earned trust, the program doesn’t have the infrastructure to support all of the calls. Next year, there will be 100 students across three schools earning college credits.

To help them, the institute is hiring a coordinator to be the point person for students transitioning to college. They also plan to bring students together virtually so they can support one another.

The idea is “to have that sense of, ‘oh I’m not by myself,'" Osai said. "Maybe I’m on a campus and I’m the only one who looks like me or the only one from the whole district. So how do we bring them back together periodically to encourage and support, but also just be a sounding board as they navigate challenges in that space?”

The Hillman funding will also help the program hire coordinators for each of the schools. The coordinators will talk with families long before students step foot on campus. The approach is similar to the couch conversations that college athletic recruiters have with families.

In the long run Osai hopes it will help students see themselves as valuable.

“Quite frankly if you’re only exposed to learning environments where you feel belittled or you feel disrespected or you feel like you’re in prison and being forced to engage in learning that is below your level … it’s all oppressive,” she said. “And we’re saying, 'No, we’re preparing you for whatever you want to do professionally beyond your high school career.'”

Next year the program will offer nine College in High School courses across the three schools.