A fresh start for heads and hearts in one big district after COVID
Imagine if you, your educators and your schools could just start over with a clean slate after two challenging years of COVID.
When they returned after the new year, students at Pittsburgh CAPA, a creative and performing arts high school, were presented with large sheets of white paper as they gathered to set goals for how their second semester would be a different experience. “That bank canvas is what we need in education to paint something so fresh and new so we can change the nature of how education has looked for the last year and a half,” says Melissa Pearlman, Pittsburgh CAPA’s principal. “It’s time for a post-COVID revitalization. We cannot continue to live under the blanket of the pandemic.”
The goal-setting activity is an example of how Pittsburgh Public Schools is starting over with “A Fresh Start for the Head & Heart,” which Interim Superintendent Wayne N. Walters launched right after winter break. The overall goal is to rethink culture, systems and instruction to reimagine and reinvigorate teaching, learning, and leadership across the District, says Walters, who took on his interim role in October.
The effort is being driven by ideas from across the district, from students to families to teachers and administrators to community members. “Knowing what we’ve learned, we’re giving schools permission to look at what the reality is in their building and if there is something they can change about the culture to elevate high-quality instruction, what would they do.”
The key to “Fresh Start” lies in the words “head” and “heart.” The first represents the districtwide effort to develop creative and non-traditional approaches to accelerating learning after COVID’s disruption while the latter signals a strong focus on wellness and emotional support, Walters says.
At Pittsburgh Miller PreK-5, “Fresh Start” means helping educators rebound so they can better support students as they also try to bounce back from the past two pandemic years, Principal Margaret J. Starkes says.
“We’re offering teachers time to have a discourse about new ways of thinking about teaching and learning and to figure out innovative and creative ways to engage students at a high level,” Starkes says. “When teachers own the work, it’s easier for implementation.”
The elementary school also now has “Wellness Warriors,” in which teachers and staff pair up to conduct regular mental health checks on each other. “You have to invigorate yourself first so you can invigorate the students,” she says.
The school also kicked off 2022 with a red carpet welcome for teachers and students, who were greeted by the superintendents and Pittsburgh’s newly elected mayor. At Pittsburgh King PreK-8, students will be able to add to seven murals that staff, parents and community members painted on the building’s walls over winter break.
Principals, their leadership teams and staff will have time and space to reflect and do self-assessments as they center their schools on self-care, social-emotional learning and academic acceleration. “We’re intentionally calling the Fresh Start an opportunity rather than an initiative,” Walters says. “An initiative means one more thing to do. An opportunity means open arms to center our principals around the theme of what the next normal in school can look like.”