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New classroom gives educators in Duquesne a professional edge

Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Teachers, instructional coaches and administrators gather in the model classroom at Duquesne Education Center, where professional development is part of the daily routine.

By Jennifer R. Vertullo
Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 4:41 a.m.

Duquesne City School District is taking a unique approach to continuous professional development.

The district set up a grant-funded model classroom this school year, and teachers, administrators and support staff are using it to hone their professional skills with weekly enrichment sessions.

Groups of staff members visit educational consultant Linda Nelson in a classroom suite adjacent to the district's administrative wing nearly every class period throughout the day. They cover instructional practices and cross-curricular projects, and give and receive advice on how to connect with each student's academic needs.

Acting Superintendent Barbara McDonnell takes pride in the prescriptive approach to education.

McDonnell, an educator and administrator in Duquesne schools since 1999, helped to design classroom settings that bring extra instruction to those who need it.

“We want to work with our students,” she said. “Each child will follow an individual learning plan. If we learn what everyone's strengths and weaknesses are, everyone will be challenged and engaged in the classroom.”

McDonnell and Nelson brainstormed for a way to help the staff determine what does and does not work in the classroom, and use that knowledge to become more effective.

“We discussed this dream and set up a template for prescriptive learning for all — the teachers, the administrators, the students,” Nelson said.

“It's not threatening in here at all,” Nelson said. “It's very open and welcoming.”

Teachers are willing to share concerns and best practices, she said, and they're excited to be part of the group.

“They want to share what they've done and how it worked,” Nelson said.

In a transition year when districts across the state are conforming to new educational standards set by the state and federal government, Nelson said it's important for teachers to understand the Pennsylvania Common Core standards, the Performance Profile rating system and Educator Effectiveness evaluation.

Because the district is in severe financial and educational recovery under the leadership of court-appointed receiver Paul Long, the stakes are particularly high.

The district educates only elementary students. Duquesne kids in seventh through 12th grades attend East Allegheny and West Mifflin Area schools.

In the summer and at the beginning of the school year, Duquesne administrators focused on developing an elementary curriculum that complies with new state Department of Education standards. Now they are taking part in curriculum diary mapping in language arts and mathematics.

“This is a good way for us to discuss things across the curriculum,” fifth-grade teacher Vanessa Saut said. “We get to hear what the fourth-grade teachers are covering and where their students stand academically. We know what they are struggling with and what to expect.”

With every teacher being versed in the same techniques, Saut said it provides a more consistent learning environment between classrooms and across grade levels.

“The teachers have been very receptive,” instructional coach Jamie Schmidt said. “They can all come down here for different resources and best practices.”

Instructional coach Michelle Kimmell said today's learning environments literally are not the “old school.” Teachers aren't hiding in their classrooms. They're willing to talk about their strengths and weaknesses.

“The model classroom gives us such flexibility,” fourth-grade teacher Marcie Yunkun said. “You can interact, try new things and take what you want from it. It's teachers and administrators helping each other.”

District chief recovery officer Paul Rach said the model classroom has fiscal and educational benefits.

“Financially, it's very efficient. It's a huge bang for the buck,” Rach said. “Academically, it's probably the most intense, organized professional development you can create in a school.”

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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