Posters of historical figures such as Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters and Shirley Chisholm hang on the walls of the cafeteria as the children engage in a morning ritual that includes a school chant, black history fact and singing of the “black national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The scholars, as Gail Edwards, school principal and CEO calls them, start every morning with the routine.
“It helps set the tone for the entire day,” she said of the practice. “I think it not only helps inspire them, but gets them in the mindset where they’re ready and excited to learn.”
Founded by the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh in 1998, the school officially changed its name from the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School in August, signifying its becoming a separate entity from the area nonprofit.
The tiny K-5 charter school with a student body made up of mostly black students, 81 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, has received little public attention tucked away in the former B’nai Israel Synagogue in East Liberty.
However, the community appeal of the first charter school to open its doors in Pittsburgh is undeniable, with its current building at capacity, an active waiting list and appeals from parents to expand to a K-8 school. The Pittsburgh Public Schools board also narrowly approved in a 5-4 vote last week allowing the school to relocate to a larger building in Larimer, with board President Regina Holley and directors Cynthia Falls, Carolyn Klug and Sylvia Wilson dissenting.
City superintendent Linda Lane said last month the district could “learn a lot” from Urban Academy’s high academic achievements, particularly its third-grade reading scores, after a community report from educational advocacy group A+ Schools showed the charter school’s outcomes as well above the district average.
“For me, reading is critical because as a people, we were not allowed to learn to read,” Ms. Edwards said of her reputation as being a “reading wizard.” “If you as a slave, if they found out that you could read, they would do something horrendous to you. So I have pushed and pushed and pushed for them to learn to read well and learn to articulate.”
Vocabulary development begins early, she said, and her scholars are required to independently read 40 books per year. When she rewards them for achievements such as positive behavior or good grades, she does so with bookstore gift cards. Local authors frequently visit the school, she said, to discuss their writing methods, sources of inspiration and the importance of literature.
“Reading is everywhere and they can’t get away from it. We expect them to develop an appreciation for reading and if you expect it, they’ll do it.”
The school also was singled out as an “opportunity school” this year by PennCAN — the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now — which is part of a national network, 50CAN, which advocates for high-performing charter and other public schools. The organization focused on six schools with high poverty rates that had met or exceeded proficiency standards on state tests in 2013 and 2014.
For fifth-grade teacher Angelique Drakeford, what makes her school different is the emphasis on black history and character education lessons, which focus on topics such as fairness, honesty, respect and loyalty that are incorporated into the everyday curriculum.
Books by prominent black children’s authors such as Jacqueline Woodson, Christopher Paul Curtis and Sharon G. Flake lined the shelves of a tall wooden bookcase in a reading corner, as her students played a revised game of Concentration, in which they formed a large circle and had to keep a rhythm while providing examples of proper nouns, verbs then homophones. A book chronicling the experience of Elizabeth Eckford, of the Little Rock Nine, perched on the chalkboard at the front of the classroom.
“I wish I would’ve gotten some of that in school,” she said. “I understand the importance of balance, of incorporating my own history into what it is you’re teaching me. A well-rounded education starts with having an understanding of yourself first, who you are and where you’re from.”
Her student Alana Wade, 10, said her teachers made all the difference when she transferred to the school in the second grade.
“I feel like my teachers always expect better of me,” she said. “This feels like a school just for me.”