Pittsburgh Public Schools “Fresh Start” for the school year hopes to elevate teaching and learning

“The pandemic really threw us for a loop.”

By Mary Niederberger

“Good Morning. Welcome to the first day of school.”

That was the greeting for students at Pittsburgh King PreK-8 on Tuesday, an unusual greeting for a cold day in February. But it marked the first day of the second semester and a “restarted” school year in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

On Monday, Interim Superintendent Wayne Walters announced via a press release the kickoff of the “Fresh Start for the Head and Heart” effort in the Pittsburgh schools – a movement that encourages school staff to do a reset in a school year that has seen numerous pandemic-created obstacles. 

The obstacles include transportation and attendance problems, COVID-19 virus spread in the schools and community, academic setbacks, an increase in the social and emotional needs of students, and, in recent weeks, violence in some schools including the shooting death of a student at Oliver Citywide Academy.

On Tuesday, Walters participated in a personal kickoff of the Fresh Start program, starting at Pittsburgh Miller PreK-5, where he and mayor Ed Gainey greeted students and thanked staff members for their hard work during this challenging year. Walters later greeted students and staff at Pittsburgh King PreK-5 and Pittsburgh Dilworth PreK-5.

“I am so excited to be here for your fresh start,” Walters told the crowd at Miller, as he encouraged staff to elevate the school’s culture, assess the systems that create better organization, in their school and focus on quality instruction.

The Fresh Start effort is two-part⁠—first calling on schools “to reflect and select core activities to restart the school year at the second semester with a focus on positive school culture, systems that create better organization and cohesion, and guidance to elevate instruction,” according to the district press release. 

The second part of the effort “allows schools to create non-traditional processes of academic support and acceleration (Head) as well as school wide spaces for wellness and emotional support (Heart) designed for students and staff,” the release said. 

Walters, during an interview as he toured Pittsburgh King where he started his teaching career, said while the “Fresh Start” effort appeared to be a reaction to the spate of violence in Pittsburgh high schools in recent weeks, he had in fact been planning for it since November.

Walters spoke with the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism in November about the challenging start to the school year and the obstacles the district faced in addressing pandemic learning interruptions. “The pandemic really threw us for a loop,” he said at the time. 

Interim Superintendent Wayne Walters greets students at Pittsburgh King PRE-K-8. (Photos by Mary Niederberger)

Now, starting the sixth month of the school year, COVID-19 continues to be a distraction to academics but he wants school leaders and staff to try to see past it. 

“It’s a necessary distraction. A distraction where health and safety has come above what our core focus is and that’s teaching and learning,” he said. 

“This reset, this fresh start would really allow schools to really reflect and think about how they will elevate teaching and learning,” Walters said. “Not to dismiss the pandemic. But to rise above the distraction whether that means building literacy or increasing math scores and really having this full experience with all of our courses.”

The interim superintendent said the Fresh Start effort is a chance for school principals and staff to let district leaders know what the needs are in their schools. 

“That’s the power of this fresh start. It allows schools to make decisions that are best for them. They are the ones who are living their experience everyday and they know best,” Walters said. 

He said he wants schools to create “an educational experience that is quality and sustainable and brings joy to students.” 

“We haven’t been able to elevate it to a place where it brings joy because so many people are in a space of worry and discomfort and trying to balance social and emotional learning and mental health,” the interim superintendent said. 

“We hope that this restart creates some energy around what we are about.  We are a school district first and foremost.”

Last fall, student achievement data given to the Pittsburgh school board showed that Pittsburgh students in grades 2-7 had academic growth of about three-quarters of a typical year in reading and two-thirds in math at the end of the 2021 school year according to a presentation from officials of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Education Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Education and Mathematica.

The data, which was similar to national data, came from interim MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) assessments given by the district. 

There has been no recent academic achievement data released by the Pittsburgh district though the results from state exams are expected to be made public later this month by the state Department of Education. The results have been delayed this year because some districts, including Pittsburgh, administered the tests in fall because students were not in school last spring when the exams would normally have been given. 

Walters said he could not comment on the district’s results on the PSSA and Keystone exams, though districts generally are sent the data before it is released publicly. 

Mary Niederberger can be reached at niederbergerme@gmail.com & on Twitter @MaryNied.

This story is a part of PLAYING THE LONG GAME: Rebounding from unfinished learning, an on going series about pandemic learning in Pittsburgh made possible by support from The Grable Foundation.

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