Pittsburgh Public Schools' Fulton earns praise for educational program

| Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, 11:52 p.m.

Kevin Bivins would not let his two older daughters go to Pittsburgh Fulton PreK-5 even though it was only three blocks from his home. Twelve years ago, he said, the school did not emphasize academics.

That has changed, and Bivins sends his youngest daughter, Kaylee, 8, to Fulton, where she is a third-grader.

That's not because he became principal there six years ago, he said. Bivins credits the school's staff, which he said renewed its vigor in advocating for students.

Fulton has become one of the top schools in the Pittsburgh Public Schools district. In the past 10 years, scores on some state tests increased dramatically.

In math, for example, just 19 percent of fifth-graders scored at the advanced or proficient level in 2002, compared to 89 percent this year. During the same period, reading scores soared from 24 percent at advanced or proficient to 83 percent.

Fulton, a 118-year-old school on Hampton Street in Highland Park, has 381 students, half of whom are in its French magnet program. Last week, district officials named it a STAR school, an honor for academic growth.

Although Bivins points to teachers and parents as keys to the success, staff members said he played no small role.

“Under Mr. Bivins' leadership, we have virtually customized every student's education to meet their needs,” third-grade teacher Amy Nichols said.

Carey Harris, executive director of the education watchdog group A+ Schools, called Fulton a “sleeper” school.

“I hear a lot of good things, especially from parents,” she said. “It's a well-run ship.”

Bivins, 49, of North Huntingdon, who transferred from Pittsburgh Lemington, said Fulton's turnaround is partly a case of addition by subtraction. At least 10 teachers left since he became principal, and in his first year he suspended a lot of misbehaving students because he wanted to create a culture of accountability.

Superintendent Linda Lane considers Fulton a model for reducing the racial achievement gap in the district. Fulton is 86 percent black.

Lane said Fulton's younger students, while walking home, lose samples of their classwork in her yard three blocks away. Though not impressed with their littering, she said the papers demonstrate students' focus.

The changes at Fulton are “diligent attention to how the kids are doing as individuals, and a prescriptive solution not for the whole class, but for individual children,” Lane said.

Nichols demonstrates Fulton's diligence. She practically wallpapered the back wall of her classroom with sheets showing each student's progress — though they are identified by number only — on 31 state standards. The papers quickly show her problem areas.

“As a parent, you want to see your child's progress every week. The whole point is to watch before they get too far behind,” said Bivins, who holds a bachelor's degree in rehabilitative counseling from Clarion University and master's degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Ohio State University.

Fulton's changes caused some parents to come back as volunteers when their children graduated.

Sitting at a table in a hallway, Liz Morgan of Squirrel Hill used dice to tutor a student about multiplication. Her son Andrew left Fulton six years ago.

“The kids are very nice and helpful. They can help me carry my books or help me down the stairs,” said Morgan, who uses a cane. “I just love them.”

Tyrone Lyons, 9, a fourth-grader from East Liberty, joined Morgan for some math help.

“When our teachers teach us stuff, it's fun,” he said. “They don't just make it work.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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