Integrated Learning Propels Pittsburgh Students

Jeremy Resnick started teaching in 1987. Even though his mother is famous educator and Pitt prof Lauren Resnick, Jeremy said his first year of teaching was like living in foreign country.

He began to wonder if schools could move the needle on life outcomes for kids in poverty. Jeremy began exploring new options for youth. He founded a career center, a charter school and the Charter Schools Project at Duquesne University.

In 2003, Jeremy co-founded Propel, a school in the basement of an old hospital with the goal of providing great schools to families who would otherwise not have access.

When asked to describe the Propel learning model, Jeremy first describes a culture of possibility. The early work led to a shared value,  “Propel does not accept the premise that poverty or family structure determines education performance or life outcome.”

Shared values and lots of lessons learned led to six promising principles: agile instruction, embedded support, culture of dignity, fully valued arts program, vibrant teaching communities, and a quest for excellence.

There are now a set of powerful practices to go with each of the principles:


Propel Schools serves 4000 students at 13 Pittsburgh campuses. Over 80% of the students live in or near poverty. About the same percentage are kids of color. Almost a fifth have special needs. A third of students have involvement with county human services.

The nonprofit network exists to close education and experience gaps and transform the lives of children in underserved Pittsburgh communities through innovative, student centered learning.

Given the level of challenge children bring to school, Propel provides a wide range of support services. “Embedded Support is one of our principles,” said Jeremy. “We support kids individually–also parents and teachers, whatever the challenge is.”

Fund My Future is an example of family supports. The program helps Propel families start savings accounts for kids. The program has generated more than $130,000 in parent deposits benefiting over 2,000 students.

Secondary students participate in a daily small group advisory to support sustained relationships, monitor progress and develop agency

A longer day and year (providing 25% more time than traditional schools) supports full integration of the arts. Jeremy sees the arts as an important way for youth to connect to their own culture as well as explore others.

Jeremy said that because teacher preparation enrollments are down, it’s getting harder to hire great teachers. To boost the pipeline, Propel established the PIttsburgh Urban Teaching Corps with  Chatham University for teacher preparation. If you don’t know Chatham, check out the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment on the 388-acre Eden Hall Campus.

The Propel team recruits candidates from the program and its teachers and administrators serve as adjunct faculty. One quarter of the 80 teachers hired for this school year came through the network specific training program. The teacher prep program costs about $60,000 per teacher (half stipend, half tuition). The goal is to develop another 130 teachers in the next five years. Jeremy is trying to raise another $4 million to support the program.

Speaking of building a talent pipeline, Dr Tina Chekan, CEO Propel Schools was a founding kindergarten teacher in 2003. She worked her way up to Literacy Coach, Principal, and Assistant Superintendent.

Innovation & STEAM Integration

Kristen Golomb (@MrsGolomb) joined Propel as science teacher in 2006. Today she is the Director of Innovation leading the implementation of a bundle of student-centered learning practices including big integrated projects, coding, and maker. The project-based learning (PBL) framework was built with Pittsburgh design shop LUMA Institute.

K-4 students engage in Integrated Learning Experiences including computer science and the arts to develop transferable skills through a 30 hour integration class taught by integration educators and two integrated projects co-taught by teachers and integration educators.

Emily Cain is a K-4 integration educator that supports the development of project-based units. She sees every K-4 student each week. Jeffrey Patrick, also an integration educator, teaches elementary coding while co-teaching and co-planning PBL units that incorporate these skills into the regular ed classrooms.

Middle level students take between 10 and 30 hours of integrated electives that incorporate Computer Science and the arts into project-based units.

Studio 4-C is a middle school project-based class that combines art, social studies, and technology with a focus on critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication.

Studio 4-C teacher Patrick Hammonds focuses on identity in 6th, change in 7th, and freedom

In 8th grade. He said, “Partnerships with Educurious, Verizon Innovative Learning, Remake Learning, and others ensure I’m as dedicated to self improvement as I want my students to be.”

Project-based units require students to engage in multidisciplinary projects including authentic uses for 3D printing. “We have been given the opportunity to transform student centered learning in our region, due to the hard work and dedication of The Remake Learning Network,” said Kristen.

Heather Harvey (@mrsharveypcs), a technology integration specialist supports the use of the Google suite, Minecraft, AR/VR, and tech-enabled project based learning. Propel supports smart uses of tech with Digital Citizenship Family Nights.

In partnership with GTECH Strategies and Starbucks, 6th grade Propel students studied environmental issues that plagued the Pittsburgh region and decided to make change. They designed a school rain garden that the high school students and 3rd grade students built and grew. Below, high school-environmental students and 3rd grade science students learning plant growth and development.

Propel high schools offer the same relevance and rigor as K-8 schools. A Freshman Seminar boosts self management and learning skills. The 1:1 environments feature Project Lead The Way (PLTW) and dual enrollment courses. Every student benefits from service learning and internships.

Propel is a model of how a group of schools with shared ideals, practices, and tools can change life trajectories of youth from low income neighborhoods and, in doing so, revitalize communities.

This post is part of a blog series in the upcoming “Getting Smart on Reinventing Education” Smart Bundle produced in partnership with The Grable Foundation. Join the conversation on Twitter using #RemakeLearning. For more, check out the other blogs in the series: 

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Hillary Damke

Love this innovation stem education integrated with project based learning

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