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Pittsburghartplaces.org: Tour art and venues, relive art that's gone and create your own tours

The 13-county region has been clamoring for a public art and art venue directory, says Renee Piechocki, and now it's here: Pittsburghartplaces.org.
"For a long time we heard, 'How come there is a lack of a singular resource to direct people to Pittsburgh's collection of public art, or all the art galleries?'" says Piechocki, director of the city's office of public art, a partnership of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the Department of City Planning. "'Where are all the murals? What's in Westmoreland County?'"
Now, thanks to support from the Hillman Family and Colcom foundations, any self-identified art venue in the 13-county region can make a profile on the new website, from galleries and museum to bookstores and bars with open mic nights. Piechocki's office is now creating profiles for all the public art, both permanent and temporary, including 30 years of Three Rivers Arts Festival installations that are no longer here.
A bar on the left side of the "Places" section of the website lets you search by type of venue, artwork, programs, location and other pertinent information, such as whether there is free admission.
Once enough entries are made from venues in the region, as well as the entries about public art, the site will be "a cultural history of where we are and where we came from," she says.
The website will allow those who post, and those who use it, to experience a more comprehensive story about local art, she adds. Listings can include historical photographs and other related material. For instance, the entry for the Roberto Clemente statue outside PNC Park contains not only photographs but links to the artist's website, Clemente's biography and obituary, and places to click for two videos of the famous Pirates player's 3000th hit.
So far, the site too has been a hit, she says, particularly outside the city. "What was cool was to hear the local [community groups] say, 'Wow, we would never have the budget to do this,' or, 'Pittsburgh is known as an art region, not just an art city; thanks for including us.'"
Residents, visitors or even those preparing to host guests on a private great-art tour can upload their own choices to share. Non-art venues, such as the airport and convention center, can now post guides to their art, which appear nowhere else on the web.
Concludes Piechocki: "It's going to be exciting to see where people take this."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Renee Piechocki, Pittsburghartplaces.org

Groundbreaking videogame from Schell and Yale teaches teens risks of HIV

Schell Games, teaming with Yale University, has created a game that aims to teach at-risk teens about smart decision-making and wise behavior to reduce their chances of getting AIDS. The game, PlayForward: Elm City Stories, is now being tested by the Yale team on several hundred teens to see just how effective it can be, before it will likely be rolled out to schools, community groups and the public.
"If you get them to make better risk choices, across the board," says Sabrina Culyba, Schell senior game designer, about the game's intended players, ages 11-14, "you can influence their exposure to HIV."
The touch-enabled iPad game lets players create an aspirational avatar – a character they'd like to be – and build events into their young lives, such as a house, a job or travel opportunities. The avatars go through life experiences with their peers in grades seven through 12 and face branching choices that lead to different consequences.
The games within PlayForward include People Sense (in which players figure out how risky are different types of relationships); Refusal Power (about how people try to manipulate others into doing things, and the ability to say no to different kinds of peer pressure); Priority Sense (about the ability to make choices, including the levels of relationships with families and peers and the consequences of cumulative choices); and Know Power (which places players in a social conversation, during which peers express opinions while players learn how to defend their own stances).
Each player may end up picking an avatar of his or her own age and gender, but the goal of the game is to show stories of risk among a greater variety of people, both girls and boys. Each mini-game thus has 10 challenges for 10 types of character within the player's peer group.
The game, which won a 2013 DATA Award from the Pittsburgh Technology Council, was designed to be played over several weeks. "Completing those challenges and games allows you to find better paths and choices for your character," says Culyba. An epilogue shows what happens to each avatar in his or her twenties, using the player's aspirations and choices to show a welcome outcome of positive decisions or the health and income deficits of bad choices.
Yale's play2prevent team, led by Project Director Kimberly Hieftje, conceived the idea and got funding from the National Institutes of Health. They started a randomized, controlled trial of the game's effectiveness in February and have 115 kids enrolled, aiming for 330. They'll be measuring players' attitudes about and behavior toward drug and alcohol use as well as sex, before, during and as long as two years after the game.
Following the study, says Hieftje, they will talk to community members, parents and school directors "to see how can we get this game out there, who should be playing it and who can benefit?"
Was it tough to design a game that tries to change behavior and has a disease as its subject matter?
"Of course," Culyba says. "You have to walk the line. You're trying to talk about serious things. You have to be willing to talk about behavior in a very frank way.
"This game really wants to change behavior," she adds. "This is not really well understood in the game industry…. In real life, kids face emotional pressures that are different than when they are playing a game. That's a really tough challenge."
Writer: Marty Levine   
Sources: Sabrina Culyba, Schell Games; Kimberly Hieftje, Yale

Great events and good works from five nonprofits you've probably never heard of

Searching for some good to do, and some fun ways to celebrate good works in Pittsburgh?
We've just been through the United Way of Allegheny County's Month of Living Generously and are headed toward its fall campaign, as well as the Pittsburgh Foundation's Day of Giving on Oct. 3. But if you want a life lived with a big heart and an open hand, you may want to know about these nonprofits that likely escaped your attention. Most have new events to highlight their accomplishments and gather fuel for the coming year:

  • The Homeless Children's Education Fund in the Strip is holding two events for Homeless Children's Awareness Week (Oct. 13-20). This fund helps give homeless kids access to educational programs and services, and their first-ever Carnival in the Fall on Oct. 17 at the Priory Hotel's Grand Ballroom will feature rum tastings and tapas, live Latin music, a handmade auction of local artists' goods, a casual fashion show by designer Lana Neumeyer and more. "Stand Up and Run for Homeless Children," a 10K run and a 5K run and walk, will take place Oct. 19 beginning on North Park's Pearce Mill Road.
  • The Garden of Peace Project is also holding its first of what they hope to be an annual event: the Exploration of Self Conference on Oct 18 through 20, which aims to offer a wider understanding of the LGBT and HIV+ communities, whom the project serves. The conference will explore how spirituality and race affect the communities and Pittsburgh's efforts to be inclusive.
  • The Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of Autism Speaks' first-ever Chefs Create will be chaired by former Steeler great Lynn Swann and hosted by WTAE's Janelle Hall on Nov. 7 at the Fairmont Hotel. Chefs from nine of the city's top venues will be offering creations: Bistro 19's Jessica Bauer, Braddock's Jason Shaffer, Cioppino's Greg Alauzen, Donato's Donato Coluccio, McCormick & Schmicks' Christopher Noonan and Rick Kirsap, Monterey Bay Fish Grotto's Jordan Eback, Savoy's Kevin Watson, Seviche's Brian Kennedy and The Capital Grille's Travis Hall. There will also be a cocktail hour with live music.
  • Genre’s Kids with Cancer Fund was named for Genre Baker, who started this charity at nine in 2009 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Genre's cancer is in remission, but his aim now is to provide children who are diagnosed with cancer at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and their families, essential supplies and toiletries for what is too often a long first hospital stay. The nonprofit also tries to give each kid a handheld gaming system for their time in chemotherapy and undergoing blood transfusions, and has passed out 8-12 per month since 2010. It raises money through an annual golf outing, a 5K race and family fun day and of course your donations.
  • Parkinson disease may be well known, but the National Parkinson Foundation of Western Pennsylvania's annual Moving Day fundraising walk, held Sept 28 at Highmark Stadium beside Station Square this year, may be less well-recognized. The event includes a Movement Pavilion featuring yoga, dance and more, as well as face painting, balloon art and magic demonstrations, with the Pirate Parrot and Ammo the Riverhound in attendance.
Writer: Marty Levine

Still don't know about Heinz House after-school activities? Come to Community Day

Are all the after-school offerings at the Sarah Heinz House still unknown to a large part of Pittsburgh? Janice Wasson, its director of development and marketing, thinks too many people are unaware of these ultra-affordable, fun activities, costing just $25 for an entire year.
That's why the Heinz House on the North Side, home to the area's Boys and Girls Clubs of America, is holding its semi-annual free Community Day on September 21, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Heinz House will throw open its doors for potential members to check out the facilities and meet the staff.
Kids (accompanied by an adult, of course) should bring sneakers and a swimsuit and towel if they want to enjoy the gym or pool, along with refreshments and arts and crafts, a bounce house, balloon animals, face painting and more.
"Parents depend on us," Wasson notes, since the House is open from 3 to 9 p.m. on weekdays. "There is something for every child here," from first graders to 18-year-olds.
Kids must attend two Heinz House sessions when they first join -- a gym and swim class and a life skills class to promote social and emotional learning and cultural awareness. Then they are free to take advantage of more offerings in gymnastics, swimming, dance, and robotics, to name a few. They can also take part in the sports league and teen leadership development program, which involves performing community work and attending local and national conferences.
A meal and snack are also provided at no cost to kids in the program. They can learn to undertake peer-to-peer mentoring and coaching of younger kids, and have the chance to get paid part-time jobs, such as helping in the café and the pool.
Heinz House also offers swimming, gymnastics and dance for preschoolers and is open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays for adults to use the fitness area and pool. 
"There's something for everybody here," Wasson says. "We want them to come away thinking it's a great place for kids, it's a safe place for kids, and … we seek to build good citizens. We truly believe that Sarah Heinz House has a way of affecting each child in a very personal way."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Janice Wasson, Sarah Heinz House

New film grants announced from Sprout at Happy Hour

The Sprout Fund is using its next Happy Hour on Sept. 26 to announce new film, video and multimedia grants, with applications due Nov. 8.
Happy Hours – designed to let the public know the latest about the Fund's efforts, past and future – are held every other month. The Sept. 26 event will take place at 6 p.m. at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont. Free beer, soft drinks and popcorn will accompany a showing of the Sprout-supported film Greetings from Pittsburgh: Neighborhood Narratives. Kristen Lauth Shaeffer and Andrew Halasz, creators of this anthology of nine shorts, will be on hand to speak about the project.

Sprout has supported nearly 20 film-related projects in the past, notes Kathleen Radock, development officer, and Pittsburgh continues to produce so many such artworks that Sprout decided it was time to apply its Seed Awards to those efforts.
Now Sprout is looking to grant up to $10,000 each to three or four film, video or multimedia proposals for "innovative community-based projects," Radock says. The website notes that Sprout has previous funded films that focus on "amplifying community voices, highlighting issues of social importance, promoting cultural and ethnic diversity, documenting local history, calling for civic action and the art of entertainment."
Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts will give grantees access to professional equipment, training and technical assistance. Sprout accepts applications from individuals as well as non-profit organizations and community groups. 
To RSVP for the free event, click here.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Kathleen Radock, The Sprout Fund

Fleming named head of United Way annual campaign

"I need to rally other leaders and let people know why they should get involved," says Kim Tillotson Fleming, chairman and CEO of Hefren-Tillotson, who was recently named chair of the 2013 annual campaign of the United Way of Allegheny County.
That's because the need here is greater than ever, she notes. "Although our unemployment rate has been better than the national average, the level of need for United Way services continues to grow," based on the number of calls the organization receives and the demand at local food banks.
"In terms of social services, I think that more money goes through United Way than any other agency," she adds. And the annual corporate campaigns reach 60,000 donors.
United Way's goal this year is to raise more than $33 million for school success programs and aid and advocacy for seniors, families in financial difficulties and people with disabilities. And Fleming seems to be up to leading the challenge.
She serves on the boards of Allegheny College, Allegheny Conference on Community Development, The Buhl Foundation, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and the Pittsburgh Foundation, and has been deeply involved in United Way campaigns for years. After her own company's very successful campaign beat the employee participation goal one year, she walked nearly 20 miles between Hefren-Tillotson's Wexford and Pittsburgh offices to celebrate.
As the leader of this year's campaign, Fleming intends to increase membership in the Women's Leadership Council, which has had the strongest growth of any initiative at the local United Way. It has a group goal of raising a million dollars more this year to help women through such issues as loss of a job, divorce or health problems. She also hopes to encourage more people to pledge earlier and to increase their pledges across several years.
"I'm a huge believer in giving back," she says, "and I've found that people get more out of giving. I hope we're able to make it a very successful campaign, beyond our dreams for this year."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Kim Tillotson Fleming, United Way of Allegheny County

What are the best Pittsburgh restaurants using local produce?

Want to taste local produce being prepared in dishes at some of the best Pittsburgh restaurants? A Taste of Grow Pittsburgh, on Sept. 22 at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, features more than a dozen local restaurants and cafés doing just that, including Salt of the Earth, Avenue B, Square Café, E2, Legume, Root 174, The Porch at Schenley, Cure, Alma, Casbah, Habitat, Industry Public House, Red Oak Café, Whole Foods Market and La Prima Espresso. There's also wine from Engine House 25 and organic and local beers.

The participating restaurants also are part of Grow Pittsburgh's many programs, which promote and teach urban agriculture and gardening. The Edible Schoolyard program brings gardening experts to schools in September and October to work with the kids. The Urban Farmer in Training program at Braddock Farms, the group's largest production site at Braddock Avenue and 10th Street, helps kids learn the value of veggies as they harvest and cook. Grow Pittsburgh also offers an apprentice program for adults wanting to learn to work on small-acre community farms, as well as community gardening lessons.
"It's really great to see 12-year-olds wanting their own garden plot, families working together," says Kate Hickey, the organization's director of operations.
"All the chefs are very approachable" at A Taste, she adds. "They love talking about what they are creating. New folks are coming into the city every year, and it's a great way to discover these restaurants."
This year's event, the largest yet, will raise $25-30,000 for the organization. Tickets may be purchased here. The event includes live music and a silent auction with jewelry from local designer Caesar Azzam of Caesar's Designs and other items.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Kate Hickey, Grow Pittsburgh

Go global from Market Square with One Young World fest

Ashton Armstrong is determined not to let her participation in the One Young World (OYW) Summit here last October end there.
As part of the Pittsburgh delegation to the event, which brought together 1,300 young people from across the world to connect and plan projects for positive change, she was tremendously impressed. "We had great international speakers and met a huge number of people who were doing fantastic things," she recalls.
Since then, the 24-year-old Highland Park resident (and student in Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs) attended a youth assembly at the UN and found herself among 4 or 5 Pittsburghers in the crowd of 500.
That made her realize: "Hey, Pittsburgh is really on the map, yet people here may not feel that global connection directly."
Receiving help from the Sprout Fund and the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, which had sponsored Armstrong's OYW attendance, she and other delegates decided to create the OYW Local-Global Festival at Market Square on Sept. 25 (follow its Twitter updates here, or use the hashtags #oyw and #localglobal).
Their idea was to create a fun event that would also let people know that Pittsburgh is a place to connect with global concerns.
Among the groups offering information and interactive, global-themed activities are:
  • Global Pittsburgh
  • Global Links
  • Global Shapers
  • Food Revolution Pittsburgh
  • Cameroon Football Development Program
  • Building New Hope
  • Point Park University
  • Saudi Student Group Pittsburgh
  • Ten Thousand Villages
  • Vibrant Pittsburgh
  • Global Solutions
  • Amizade
  • Umoja African Arts Company
  • Women of the Cloud Forest
  • Japan-America Society of PA
The main OYW table will be collecting stories about Pittsburghers' local-global interactions and preparing the best stories, including videos, to present to OYW 2013, which takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, the following week, and to the OYW in Dublin, Ireland in 2014.
Performers in Market Square for the OYW fest include Umoja, 3rd St. Belly Dance, Yamoussa Camara (a West African drummer and vocalist) and Timbeleza, a local Brazilian drumming corps.
Concludes Armstrong: "We're looking for people to understand that there are not only young people but other globally minded people in Pittsburgh who not only want to connect to the world but want to bring the world here."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Ashton Armstrong, OYW Local-Global Festival

Honoring women who support women in business: Just a few Athena Awards tables left

"Athena is the only award that recognizes women for their support of other women in business," notes Beth Marcello, chair of the Athena Awards, which will recognize local women during its annual luncheon on Sept. 30.
"We know that not just in Pittsburgh but everywhere women's salaries tend to be less than men's," she adds. There are also fewer women, in proportion to the population, on corporate boards and in top corporate jobs. "That's why awards programs are important for celebrating women who have risen to the top and who are supporting women around them."
The Athena awards recognize women who demonstrate exceptional career success, community involvement and mentoring of other women. This year's Athenas garnered a record number of nominations. The finalists are:
  • Lenore Blum, distinguished career professor of computer science, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Theresa Bone, vice president and corporate controller, EQT Corporation
  • Maurita Bryant, assistant chief, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police
  • Laura Ellsworth, partner-in-charge, Jones Day, Pittsburgh Office
  • Titina Ott, vice president worldwide alliance and channels, Oracle Corporation
Finalists for the ATHENA Young Professional Award, given for only the third year to a woman 35 or younger, are:
  • Marisa Bartley, business development officer, Citizens Bank
  • Erin Isler, director, loan syndications, PNC Capital Markets LLC
  • Amiena Mahsoob, director of education programs, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh
This year’s luncheon is once again expected to sell out, gathering nearly 900 attendees. Only a few tables are left and are available here.
Marcello points to "a real diversity among the group of finalists," who are involved not only in the business world but in local nonprofits, health care, education, public service and other fields, in many local spheres. "They're involved in health-care organizations, regional-development organizations, in addition to their very stellar careers, and it increases their impact on their communities."
She is particularly pleased with the results of the award for young professionals: "These are women on the path for leadership, already exemplifying those Athena qualities of success and giving back to other women." Their commitment at such an early point in their careers, she concludes, "is profound."
The ATHENA Awards Program Luncheon, presented by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, will be held at the Westin Convention Center Hotel.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Beth Marcello, Athena Awards

Western PA breeds championship quarterbacks -- and story tellers

To the names of quarterbacks Joe Namath, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana, how about adding Haruka Doi and Cricket Branstrom?
Haruka, from Pt. Breeze, and Cricket, from Warren County (next to Erie), could be the latest editions to a western Pennsylvania hall of fame – if we get one for seven-year-old storytellers.
The pair won places in the national PBS KIDS GO! Writers Contest for 2013 – the second year in a row that WQED's locally run competition has spawned two winners countrywide.
Of all the public television-run contests, WQED's is one of the biggest, covering not only the western part of the state but eastern Ohio and all of West Virginia. A record 1,700 entries were received, and WQED, Pittsburgh Public Schools and sponsor EQT picked out three winners each in grades K-3. Haruka's story, the top winner for second grade, is the first WQED winner of first place nationally, earning her an iPad Mini.
Her story, "Willie and Hannah," tells the tale of Willie, a baby woodpecker, and Hannah the adult red-tailed hawk. "They become really good friends when they meet," Haruka says. "Hannah is partly a mother to Willie because his real parents are not here."
Hannah supplies Willie with many types of berries, but, being a baby, Willie becomes picky and likes only one variety – and he doesn't thank Hannah. She becomes mad and leaves Willie alone, which makes him so angry he jumps out of the nest, only to be attacked by a mink. Hannah hears his cries and comes to the rescue. Willie has learned his lesson – he won't be selfish again. Hannah leads him to the place where he can find all his favorite berries.
A standout feature of Haruka's story are the torn-paper collages with which she has illustrated each page, using the bright colors of magazines to create unique accompanying artwork.
"We were just kind of surprised as we watched her writing stories," says Haruka's father Yohei, who with mother Kazu came here from Japan a year before their daughter was born. "For her, this is normal. For us, it is amazing. She is constantly reading and borrowing books from libraries. She goes through book after book. This is her first major attempt at writing a story."
Haruka's homeroom teacher and principal at Pittsburgh Colfax worked with her on the project, says Yohei. "It really led her in the right direction and got her off the ground."
Cricket Branstrom, who earned third-place among first-grade winners nationally, wrote "Little Possom's Adventure," illustrated with watercolors. Josephine the baby possum is lost in the pine forest after she returns to find her mother. She asks many animals – a raccoon, bear, deer, bobcat, rabbit, eagle and more – how she can find her way home. "They all took her to the next animal and the bobcat takes her home," Cricket explains.
"Then her mom says it was just a dream. But Josephine grinned because she knew it was real."
"I think this contest has truly encouraged her to follow her dreams," says Cricket's mother, Carilee Branstrom. "She's told us she's wanted to be an author and illustrator when she grows up."
Haruka Doi shares Cricket's plans – sort of: When she grows up, Haruka says, she wants to be "a little bit a writer and a little bit a soccer player."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: WQED

Take over to make over: new South Side vacant lot rehab program

The success of ReClaim Northside, which provides resident training to rehab and green vacant lots, has prompted organizers GTECH Strategies to create ReClaim South.
Residents of Allentown, Arlington, Arlington Heights, Beltzhoover, Bon Air, Knoxville, Mount Oliver, Mount Washington, Southside Slopes and St. Clair have until 5 p.m. on Sept. 3 to apply for special training sessions or get a paper application at The Hilltop Alliance’s office, 512 Brownsville Road. Ten will be chosen Sept. 20.
GTECH (Growth Through Energy and Community Health) began ReClaim Northside to reduce blight and enhance the community's development skills, and its 10 participants are about to implement their vacant lot plans.
Besides the training, ReClaim South members each get $3,000 to put their plans in action. And Pittsburgh's Southside neighborhoods could use the help. GTECH and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy studied the local landscape last year and found, in their Green Toolbox Report, that there were more than 400 acres of vacant land in the Hilltop neighborhoods.
For ReClaim South, GTECH has also added a Green Task Force to develop unique plans for other communities under the Hilltop Alliance, as well as those under Economic Development South. Unlike the grassroots work that the rest of ReClaim encourages, this group of municipal managers and community organizers will approach the problem of neighborhood revamping from the top down for several communities that are farther along in their revitalization: Carrick, Overbrook, Brentwood, Baldwin and Whitehall. The Task Force has its first session on Aug. 30.
"We felt this was a good way to build momentum off of the Green Toolbox Report and take action," says Evaine K. Sing, ReClaim South project manager.
Since ReClaim Northside, she adds, GTECH has learned to help ReClaim participants strategize project priorities and vacant lot locations so that they can be sure they are planning projects the community needs and will support. Thus, for ReClaim South, GTECH will do a demonstration vacant lot project this fall to help participants get ideas and see how implementation works.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Evaine K. Sing, GTECH Strategies

Ever go sideways Hula Hooping? That's Fun Day at Clayton

Before kids were allowed to shake and shimmy in public using Hula Hoops, there was hoop rolling – and badminton, croquet, sack races and other activities for the overly dressed kids of Victorian times.
Now, in the name of 21st-century fitness, kids can take part in these games from the early 1900s and more at Let's Move Family Fun Day at the Frick on Sept. 7, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Let's Move is First Lady Michelle Obama's program focused on healthy eating and active lives for kids, but the Frick Art and Historical Center has managed to adapt it to include activities in and around Clayton, Henry Clay Frick's house.
Spokesperson Greg Langel anticipates that more than 700 people will attend this year. "We hope to provide our visitors the opportunity to use the Frick site in a new way," says Langel. "We have these grounds – five beautiful acres – and this day provides guests the chance to learn about historic, turn of the century Victorian games the Frick children participated in, and to be active on the site."
Other lawn games, of a more modern nature, include challenge hopscotch, bean-bag toss and a wacky obstacle course. Kids can also follow an activity guide on the site produced for a previous Let's Move event.
Langel hopes visitors will also tour Clayton. "A good portion of the displays and rooms in Clayton are children's rooms," he notes, "and much of what we talk about are the lives of the children." The day will also feature Yoga and a Story, for kids and their families, which combines a reading of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” with simple yoga moves, such as tree, boat and rock poses.
A free Victorian photo booth will give kids mustaches, hats and other props to use. And if they want to see nearly real Victorian photos, they can venture into the gallery for Clayton Days Revisited: A Project by Vik Muniz. Back in 1999, Muniz used Victorian-era camera equipment to take new photos at Clayton from children's point of view. His 65 prints were originally exhibited in 2000, but they're being redisplayed now with a selection of works by Muniz from the subsequent 13 years.
The event is sponsored by UPMC Health Plan.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Greg Langel, Frick Art and Historical Center

Teacher feedback helps kids succeed in school

Teacher evaluations have always been crucial for Pittsburgh Public Schools, but now they will actually be useful, says a new report by A+ Schools.
Amy Scott, director of research and data analysis for A+, the nonprofit advocate for Pittsburgh school improvement, says the district and its teachers union have been collaborating for nearly five years on a new teacher evaluation system that takes best evaluation practices into account. They examined what evaluation methods held up over time and across evaluations, actually measuring the right factors and helping teachers improve. 
The new system uses a mix of classroom observations, student growth data (including, but not limited to, test results) and student surveys of teachers to assess teacher performance. A state law, Act 82, which takes effect this fall, mandates that teacher evaluations be based 50 percent on classroom observations and 50 percent on student outcomes. "Pittsburgh has specifically created a model that tries to take into consideration its student population," controlling for each student's family-income level, special education or gifted student status and other factors, Scott notes.
Teachers will be given ratings of distinguished, proficient, needs improvement or failing. Those in the latter two categories will need to take part in a performance improvement plan. Any teacher with a second "needs improvement" within a decade of the first such rating may be subject to district action.
Pittsburgh teachers got their first evaluation scores this year, which will give them a year to improve their practice, if needed. Scott believes the district is the only one in the state to act ahead of time. Eighty-five percent of city teachers were in the distinguished or proficient categories, she says, and 15 percent fell into the needs improvement or failing categories. Act 82 calls for principal evaluations in 2014-15.
The evaluation system is still "not perfect," Scott allows, so the district and union "should continue to work hard on improving the system so it can be more meaningful, so our teachers can continue to help our students succeed. The journey is not ended yet."

As the report concludes: "PPS should track the extent to which teachers find feedback from multiple measures helpful and actionable for improving their practice and create mechanisms to adjust feedback accordingly."
"The evaluation is really a teacher improvement system," Scott adds, and should lead to teachers participating in more professional development courses and workshops and prompt them to view helpful online videos, seek extra feedback and generally work toward increasing their effectiveness. "We see that as very promising – especially because what matters the most here are our students and their outcomes."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Amy Scott, director of research and data analysis for A+ Schools

Remember middle school? Wish you had someone looking out for you?

Middle school can be a difficult time for many kids, says Damon Bethea, mentoring projects director for United Way of Allegheny County. There are "a number of challenges: Getting used to the different environment. Juggling a schedule with different teachers. Wanting to be accepted, and dealing with bullying. Not to mention that physically, emotionally and mentally you're changing and questioning who you are in the world.
"It helps kids to feel supported by somebody who is outside a mom, dad, uncle or grandmother," he adds.
That's why United Way's Be a Sixth Grade Mentor program is expanding to include seventh and eighth grades and is now called Be a Middle School Mentor.
The program also now includes 12 Pittsburgh Public Schools, adding Pittsburgh Manchester, Pittsburgh Milliones/University Prep, Pittsburgh Obama and Pittsburgh Westinghouse this year, and plans to serve 460 students. Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, Communities in Schools, Mt. Ararat Community Activity Center and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh match mentors and mentees.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, in evaluating the program's first two years (2009-2011), found that participating students nearly doubled their chances of qualifying for the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship offered in the district.
The program will be recruiting new mentors through the end of November for the 2013-14 school year. The main focus of mentoring is helping kids with their careers and other aspirations. But the mentoring program also helps them do well academically, including encouraging regular attendance. Meeting with their students at lunchtime or after school, mentors aid kids in talking to teachers and creating study plans. They also advise students on what type of college or training program they might need to meet their goals.
"Anybody can do this," Bethea says, "but you have to have the commitment and the understanding that you may not see results from your mentoring for years to come – but know that you are planting seeds in the life of this young person."
Mentors, he adds, are "someone who feels that they have a lot to give to a student … or people who just have a passion about their community and want to help." 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Damon Bethea, United Way of Allegheny County

Bus stop, wet day, let's try WORD PLAY

Waiting is one of the toughest things for kids to do. WORD PLAY, a new bus stop game from The Fred Rogers Company, aims to make it fun and educational instead.
The game, for toddlers to first graders, was conceived as one way to help kids learn in informal situations. "It also sprang from a song, 'Why Don't We Think of Something To Do While We're Waiting,' a song Fred Rogers sang," says Margy Whitmer, WORD PLAY project manager and media producer at The Fred Rogers Company.
WORD PLAY was piloted last year. It used posters sporting simple pictures and words at bus stops, asking parents to text for questions to discuss with their kids, such as, "How many words start with the letter J, three or five?"
Finding an unsatisfying response to that approach, Whitmer's company used this year's game posters to present questions and activities right on the colorful posters themselves.
Talking and reading to kids leads to an increase in their vocabularies, helping them get ready to be successful in school, Whitmer says. "Learning is easier for them, so life is easier for them," she says.
The game also encourages the child and parent to create together. "One of the keys to good social and emotional development is the ability to develop relationships," she notes. Parents are encouraged to take photos or videos of the game in action; a Facebook page and Twitter hashtags will also be provided on the September and October posters. The August poster is available at bus stops now.
The Fred Rogers Company is working today with libraries and community groups to tell parents about the program. "My fantasy," says Whitmer, "is that cities do this everywhere. It seems so simple to me. When you learn something organically in the context of the relationship or when it us really important to you, then you really learn it."
Learn more about the new WORD PLAY here.
Funding for WORD PLAY has been provided by the Sprout Fund, The Grable Foundation and The James F. McCandless Charitable Trust.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Margy Whitmer, The Fred Rogers Company

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