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Dress code fosters environment for success at McKeesport Area High School

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 7:19 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
McKeesport Area High School principal Mark Holtzman prepares data for a Wednesday presentation to the district's school board.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
McKeesport Area Career and Technology Center secretaries Allison Swauger, left, and Shelley Furtado hang a congratulations poster for high school principal Mark Holtzman, whose article on the early success of a district dress code policy was printed in the February edition of The Pennsylvania Administrator.

With the implementation of a new dress code and improved statistics pertaining to student performance and behavior, principal Mark Holtzman wants people to know that good things are happening at McKeesport Area High School.

At Wednesday's school board meeting, Holtzman will present follow-up data to his article “Dress for Success: How One Urban School District Developed and Implemented a Strict Dress Code Policy,” published in the February edition of The Pennsylvania Administrator.

He will share comparable statistics on student achievement, attendance and disciplinary actions through March 19 for this school year and each of the previous three.

“The school board took a chance on the dress code,” Holtzman said. “In turn, we are working hard to make sure it is implemented effectively. I'm proud to have measurable data that shows success in our schools.”

The board approved a dress code in April, 8-1, with vice president Joe Lopretto dissenting,

It requires collared shirts and prohibits flip-flops, sleeveless shirts, hooded tops, sweat pants, leggings and tattered clothing.

A committee of administrators, teachers, students and community members developed the dress code with the intent of improving the learning environment in all district buildings.

With the combination of failing Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores and a violent summer that included several fatal shootings in McKeesport, Holtzman said there was potential for student morale to take a turn for the worse.

“We came in here thinking it was going to be a tough start to an even tougher year, and what happened was exactly the opposite,” Holtzman said.

An examination of PSSA data revealed to McKeesport Area administrators that the district's high school juniors showed growth in 2011-12 as a student body and in state-defined subgroups, as compared to the 2010-11 school year.

Despite missing their mark on mathematics targets, students showed roughly 3 percent growth overall and a 5 percent increase in performance among economically disadvantaged students. Holtzman said reading figures were more impressive, with 17 percent growth overall and among economically disadvantaged students.

Aside from academic achievement, data including graduation rates was factored into the state's failing schools list — something Holtzman believes McKeesport Area should not be part of.

“In every major academic reporting area, we improved, but we can make huge improvements in one area and be punished in another,” he said. “It punishes your district for having a transient population. It's not a true drop-out rate or graduation rate. It tracks students based on whether they remain in your district.”

With the high school transitioning from PSSAs to Keystone Exams this year, Holtzman said pre-testing puts McKeesport Area students in the same ballpark as the state testing average.

In algebra, McKeesport Area students tested 29 percent below basic (compared to 20 percent of all state testers), 45 percent basic (compared to 41 percent of all state testers), 20 percent proficient (compared to 27 percent of all state testers), and 6 percent advanced (compared to 11 percent of all state testers).

In literature, McKeesport Area students tested 17 percent below basic (compared to 18 percent of all state testers), 40 percent basic (compared to 31 percent of all state testers), 39 percent proficient (compared to 43 percent of all state testers), and 4 percent advanced (compared to 6 percent of all state testers).

The 2012-13 tests have not yet been taken, but Holtzman said he is confident they will better reflect the district's achievement, similar to the trends he has noticed in disciplinary action among students.

Holtzman compared the number of students disciplined and the number of administrative interventions for their behaviors, which may involve the same student over a series of incidents or multiple students in a single incident, in the 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, from the start of each year through March 19.

In 2009-10, there were 461 students disciplined with 1,266 administrative interventions. In 2010-11, there were 429 students disciplined with 1,249 interventions. In 2011-12, there were 402 students disciplined with 1,156 interventions. In 2012-13, there have been 279 students disciplined with 656 interventions.

“As subtle as these numbers look, there is no doubt that there is an improvement here,” Holtzman said. “I want to get away from the stigma that I'm a mean guy who people listen to. I share my leadership with the staff in this building, and we have strength in numbers. Our success has been about building relationships with kids.”

The most recent data reflects a 40 percent decrease in students involved with a 48 percent decrease in altercations over the past four years — a 27 percent and 30 percent decline since the implementation of the new dress code.

Holtzman said the district's goal of creating an uninterrupted learning environment is built on a culture in which students feel safe and staff are unified. He said there is a comprehensive supervision model in place and there is consistency among student expectations, staff participation and administrative support.

While attendance data was not yet available for the 2012-13 academic year, Holtzman compared 2010-11 to 2011-12. In that period, student attendance increased by 8.4 percent and faculty attendance increased by 6.5 percent.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or

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