Pittsburgh School Aims at Cultural Harmony

By Peter Schmidt — April 04, 1990 10 min read

Pittsburgh--Principal Robert Pipkin stands on the front steps of what was formerly Prospect Middle School and peers down a hillside at the city that has given him a student body rich in diversity.

In the foreground are the modest, well-kept homes of Mt. Washington, a mostly white, blue-collar area whose residents sometimes reminisce about the days before student busing, when Prospect was a neighborhood school and its pupils seemed more familiar and better behaved.

In the background is the skyline of Pittsburgh, a city carved by its hills, rivers, and highways into a mosaic of such tight-knit neighborhoods, many predominantly white or black, some with a distinct ethnic flavor.

Since 1980, when the district implemented a state-mandated desegregation plan, the low-income communities of Allentown, Beltzhoover, South Side, and the Hill District have bused their children to Prospect. The resulting half-black, half-white mix of students often has proved volatile, and the school has acquired a reputation for racially inspired fights, high suspension rates, and low achievement.

But that was before this fall, when Mr. Pipkin and an almost entirely new teaching staff embarked on their district-certified mission: to turn the 650-student school around, making it not only an academic success story, but also a model of racial harmony and cultural tolerance.

The school has since become the Prospect Center for Multiracial, Multiethnic, and Multicultural Education--or “Prospect 3-M Center.” And its planning effort for creating, by next fall, a new kind of school environment for dealing with the many dimensions of prejudice has drawn nationwide attention.

Superintendent of Schools Richard C. Wallace says the school’s transformation will involve curriculum changes, human-relations training for staff members and students, and activities that “celebrate Pittsburgh” by bringing representatives of various ethnic groups into the school.

After its implementation at Prospect next year, Mr. Wallace adds, the non-magnet program will be replicated in the district’s 13 other middle schools and then adapted to meet the needs of Pittsburgh’s 50 elementary and 11 high schools. Within eight years, every public school in the city will be familiar with the 3-M model.

“Pittsburgh is a highly ethnic community,” Mr. Wallace explains, “and we want all youngsters to be proud of their heritage and to know what their racial, ethnic, and cultural group has contributed to the city.”

Context of Systemwide Change

School officials here stress that the pilot program at Prospect is intended to give students a “global education,” while addressing the increase in racial tensions that is evident not only in their district but throughout the country.

The program also represents, Mr. Wallace says, an attempt to close the achievement gap between the city’s black and white students, which was cut in half between 1980 and 1985 with the institution of various academic programs, but has since seemed resistant to further improvement.

“We are convinced that, to close the gap further, we have to deal with the affective side of education,” the superintendent says. “We have to get to a point where every student in the schools knows that someone knows and cares about him or her. We have got to create an environment where kids are accepting of one another, and where the faculty are accepting of them.”

Many elements of the Prospect 3-M program are not new. School officials note that a number of other districts, most notably Portland, Ore., have provided them with models of multicultural curricula designed to increase student pride. And a large body of human-relations research data, they say, has been generated by districts that have had to deal with racial conflicts.

What is new, however, is the scope and scale of the Pittsburgh commitment to multicultural learning. The city is attempting to incorporate several approaches to battling racial prejudice, and it is doing this in a context of systemwide change.

Local businesses have contributed about $1.5 million toward the Prospect 3-M Center’s planning effort and the program’s establishment next year.

Eight planning task forces have been formed to deal with the various elements of the 3-M effort. Consisting of from 10 to 17 members each, which includes both teachers and parents, the task forces have been instructed to focus on the “infusion” of multicultural content into the curriculum; staff training and development; and the development of co-curricular activities, such as assemblies and after-school programs, to highlight the ethnic and racial diversity found in the city’s German, Irish, Polish, Italian and African-American neighborhoods.

Also being addressed by the task forces are issues related to school restructuring; parent and community involvement; public relations; student “self-concept"; and cultural identity.

To help ease the transmission of the 3-M program to schools throughout the district, one task force is planning the development of training programs at the Greenway Middle School Teacher Center, which will be used to train teachers in the 3-M Center’s approach.

Mentors, Cooperative Learning

Cynthia Peterson-Handley, who serves as coordinator of the Prospect 3-M Center, says the school’s revised curriculum probably will be organized around five cultural groups: African Americans, Asian Americans, European Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans.

Broadly, the curriculum task force is recommending that 6th graders focus on their own ethnic heritage, 7th graders examine the Pittsburgh community, and 8th graders study foreign countries, she says.

The multicultural emphasis would be interdisciplinary, with implementation in the areas of reading and literature, language arts, sci8ence, and the fine arts next fall, and in other subjects in later years.

The task force on staff training, meanwhile, is examining ways to provide Prospect’s teachers with cross-cultural training and its students with training in the techniques of conflict mediation, so that they may learn to resolve disputes among themselves.

The training task force is also planning to survey students to determine their specific learning style. Eventually, teachers will be taught how best to reach various types of learners, Ms. Peterson-Handley explains.

Currently, many teachers at the school are stressing cooperative learning, she says, asking students of different backgrounds to work together on assignments. Widely regarded by experts on race relations as one of the best ways to break down prejudice, cooperative-learning strategies may be stressed schoolwide next year.

Also proposed for schoolwide implementation next year is a mentor program, in which teachers will take students exhibiting low self-esteem or low academic achievement under their wing. The mentors will have regular meetings with their students, monitoring academic progress while helping them develop life goals and deal with interpersonal problems.

‘Treat Kids With Dignity’

As the bell sounds on a typical day in this preparatory, planning year, 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders noisily fill Prospect’s halls, and Mr. Pipkin greets many with a handshake and the eagerness of a candidate for public office.

The principal points out walls decked with student-made African masks, posters of Martin Luther King Jr., and photographs of 75 students being taken out for lunch as a reward for dramatically improving their grades.

“I’m concerned with how kids feel about this school,” he says. “We are laying the foundation by having kids become part of what we are doing, by showing them that we care and they can do well.”

Already, Mr. Pipkin is using a key element of “the 3-M approach” to restore order in Prospect Middle School. He has asked that his staff shelve the usual disciplinary tools--referral to the principal’s office and out-of-school suspension--and instead achieve control and rapport by appealing to students’ “self-concept.”

“A lot of these kids feel they have not been treated fairly because they are black or because they are poor white or because the teachers don’t understand their culture,” Mr. Pipkin says. “If you treat kids with dignity and understand their culture, they can do anything.”

Teachers say the climate of the school has changed dramatically, and many students appear to have noticed the difference.

“The teachers here are like parents,” says Antoine Cosby, an 8th grader. “Last year, they didn’t care what you did. They would throw the work in your face and say, ‘do it.’ Now they work with you.”

“There are people fighting here this year, but not as much as there used to be. They leave it in the neighborhood,” says Carlotta Sturdivant, also in the 8th grade.

Superintendent Wallace credits Mr. Pipkin’s style of leadership--what he describes as a combination of “tough expectations” and “tremendous affection for the kids"--for improvements such as a 50 percent drop in the suspension rate since last year.

But Stanley E. Denton, director of multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural affairs for the district, emphasizes that “it is the policies, rather than the personalities, that have really made a difference’’ at Prospect.

“We are structuralists here,” Mr. Denton says. “We don’t operate by ‘the great man theory’ or ‘the great woman theory.’ When you operate by that, all you have to do is remove that person and the improvements will be gone.”

Challenges for ‘Idealistic’ Staff

The policy changes at Prospect did not come painlessly, however.

Last summer, with the blessing of the 3,600-member Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, district officials technically “closed down” the school. Its staff members were given the option of transferring to other schools or reapplying for a job in the same building when it reopened as the 3-M Center last fall.

A panel of administrators and parents then interviewed some 200 applicants for 60 positions at the school. Only 25 percent of the old staff stayed on.

Edward J. Fiorrel, who teaches science to 7th graders, had been at Prospect Middle School for 24 years before the transition took place. He says he was rehired after an interview process in which he was asked how he felt about black children, if he had prejudices against children of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and what he could do to help the situation at the school.

Of the teachers who left, Mr. Fiorrel says that “to a point, a lot of talent was missed.”

“A lot of veteran teachers had a lot to offer, and they are no longer here,” he says.

A few other teachers have resigned this year because they disagreed with the school’s new approach to discipline. And Mr. Pipkin says he may ask three or four other teachers to leave because they “don’t believe in the three M’s.”

The new staff is generally described as being younger and more “idealistic.” The number of black teachers has doubled; they now make up one-third of the teaching staff. Virtually all of the teachers have roles on the planning task forces.

“A lot is being asked of this staff,” says Bernard Taylor, who teaches 6th-grade social studies. “We are being asked to teach, to turn this school around, and to develop, plan, and implement a districtwide program.”

“We’re being asked to be a model of so many things--a humanistic viewpoint toward discipline, a humanistic viewpoint toward teaching,” he con8tinues, adding: “The biggest challenge is to remain genuine and make children understand that this is not an act, that there is a value to appreciating cultural diversity.”

Measuring Success

According to a memo from Mr. Denton, the district is considering the creation of a special board of visitors--a panel of experts on culture, curriculum, conflict resolution, and other relevant subjects--to actively monitor the center’s progress.

Mr. Denton says he believes the work of the center should be evaluated using three different approaches: ethnographic, in which changes in friendship patterns, conflict levels, and contacts between parents would be examined; social psychological, which would focus on changes in cultural awareness and appreciation, disciplinary methods, and student achievement; and archival, in which suspension rates, attendance rates, teacher absences, and parent-participation levels would be gauged.

But the student writing assignments hanging outside one 8th-grade classroom here serve as a reminder of what the Prospect 3-M Center has going for it, and what it is up against.

Asked to respond to Martin Luther King’s nonviolent creed--his urging “to resist without bitterness; to be cursed and not to reply; to be beaten and not hit back"--most students have written paragraphs praising the creed as exemplifying wisdom, bravery, and respect for others.

One child’s paper, however, has this reply: “I disagree totally. I would never in my life be able to live like that. I could not hold my temper if people beat me or cursed at me. I would hit or scream at them back.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 1990 edition of Education Week as Pittsburgh School Aims at Cultural Harmony