Heinz Fellows aim to make an impact on students at Pittsburgh Weil Elementary

By Elizabeth Behrman

Published by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Mark Brentley Jr. arrived at Pittsburgh Weil Elementary in the Hill District as part of a fellowship program last school year, one of the first things he said he did was ask teachers how he could be helpful. 

One had an immediate suggestion: the school could use a washer and a dryer. Some of the students didn’t always have clean or dry clothes, and it was disrupting their focus on their schoolwork.

Mr. Brentley arranged for the donation of a used washer set, but it wasn’t accepted because district policy requires that donations like that still be in the box. So the idea for Weil’s Closet was born. 

He and two other Heinz Fellows cleared a storage space and stacked it floor-to-ceiling with clothes and shoes that have been donated by local businesses, churches and individuals. since November, students have been able to take more than 550 items they need, signing out items like book bags, belts and socks that they can keep. In the meantime, the school acquired a donation of a new washer and dryer.

“I think that if we tackle the opportunity gap and we tackle the different challenges within a school, then I think we’ll be on the right track here,” Mr. Brentley said. 

Now in his second year at Weil, Mr. Brentley is a senior Heinz Fellow, one of 15 members of the Heinz Fellow program who are stationed at Pittsburgh Public’s three schools in the Hill District: Weil PreK-5, Miller PreK-5 and Milliones 6-12. The Heinz Fellows program is funded by the Heinz Endowments and operated through a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Urban Education.

The fellows receive a stipend, and work in the three schools four days a week. They don’t necessarily have backgrounds in education, although some do. Mr. Brentley, a former supervisor at the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, is working to earn a master’s degree in social work. 

The Fellows conduct a research project each year and provide mentoring to the students at their assigned schools. Besides the clothes closet at Weil, the Fellows there worked with the school to create the Eagles’ Nest, a classroom space used for academic and social mentoring, de-escalation and tutoring. They also helped develop the Scholars Council, six students who meet for 15 minutes in the Eagles Nest every Tuesday to discuss ways they can improve their school.

Mr. Brentley, the son of a former city school board member, leads a discussion group of some of the older boys in the school where they talk about things like “how to behave like a young man” and personal hygiene.

“We’re not trying to provide any services that aren’t already there. Basically what we’re trying to do is connect students to services already available in the community that they might not be aware of,” said Kenny Donaldson, who oversees the Heinz Fellows program as associate director of strategic programming and initiatives at the Center for Urban Education.

Weil applied but wasn’t selected this year to become one of the school district’s community schools, which locate social services and other community resources in school buildings. The designated community schools each have coordinators that work with community organizations to bring services into the school. And Weil doesn’t have the budget that some other schools do to bring in AmeriCorps staff to do similar work, said  Kira Henderson, the school’s principal. 

While she and her staff want to be able to provide those resources to students who need them, the Heinz Fellows in the schools have the time and ability to do that coordinating. 

“The difference is they actually have the time to do it, while I’m getting ready for testing or doing observations,” Ms. Henderson said. “We can’t afford to pay somebody to do that kind of work and the services that they’re providing.”

The Heinz Fellows programs initially launched in 2011 in partnership with Duquesne University and was meant to assist traditionally underserved students — particularly those at Westinghouse Academy in Homewood — and help recruit more black males into the teaching profession, said Stan Thompson, the Heinz Endowments’ senior program director for education.

The program was paused in 2015, as it was expanded to include women and a total of 15 Fellows under the partnership with Pitt. The focus on schools in the Hill District was supported by Pitt’s existing relationship with some of the neighborhood’s community organizations and the work already underway at Milliones 6-12. 

Anecdotally, the Heinz Fellows program has achieved some positive results, Mr. Thompson said. A number of Fellows from the first cohorts did enter the teaching profession, either in Pittsburgh Public Schools or in other cities. Students who interacted regularly with the Fellows have had better grades, better attendance and better behavior in the classroom. Researchers at the Center for Urban Education are currently working to determine the exact impact the program has had on student outcomes. 

“These are initial indicators of success,” Mr. Thompson said. “I think one of the things that we want to still know is, if you follow those students, now (in elementary school), to middle, to high school, is that having an impact on their academic achievement as well? Those are the things we want to see so we can say it’s because of this relationship, this personalization, that occurs in someone’s learning that’s seeing these students thrive.”