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In Pittsburgh, Public Schools Lead the Way in Becoming ‘Future Ready’

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July 15, 2015 01:40 pm


This guest blog post was written by Thomas Ralston, Superintendent of Avonworth School District in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; Bille Rondinelli,  Superintendent of South Fayette School District in South Fayette Township, Pennsylvania; and Bart Rocco, Superintendent of Elizabeth Forward School District in Borough of Elizabeth and the townships of Elizabeth and Forward Townships in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. 

Last November, we traveled to the White House for the first Future Ready Summit and joined 110 superintendents from Alaska to Florida in taking the “Future Ready Pledge.” The summit had a profound impact on our outlook as superintendents.

Recently, the Future Ready Summit came to Pittsburgh on June 21 and 22 as one of 13 summits being held around the country this summer. District leaders across the region came together to hear from leading voices in education, share success stories, and work in teams to dive into “action planning” as they reviewed their visions.

Since last year, we’ve made progress on our pledge to make our districts “Future Ready.” At Avonworth School District, eighth graders recently built Pittsburgh-themed board games and used the Maker Lab to create game pieces on a 3D printer. Meanwhile, Avonworth High School is opening a new TV studio and students are participating in global video conferences with authors and activists in the school’s 21st Century Collaboration Center. Innovation is at the forefront of our minds.

Avonworth isn’t the only one in the area taking incredible steps to ensure students receive the future-ready education they deserve. A network of community leaders called the  Remake Learning Council is working to advance learning innovation in Southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The Council brings together executives in business, higher education, public education, civic organizations, foundations, and government to strategically support the greater Pittsburgh region’s efforts to remake learning and ensure innovative ideas are born from the region’s most influential leaders.

In South Fayette School District, award-winning director of technology and innovation Aileen Owens has built a K-12 computational-thinking initiative for all students in the district. As students move through grade levels, they learn the basics of programming through a simple language called Scratch, then shift to using motors and sensors to make their Lego creations move. By fourth grade, students are sewing electronic T-shirts with LED lights. And all seventh graders transition from block-based code to text-based code, coding apps for their phones or tablets using a program called App Inventor.

Skills like these are in high demand. STEM jobs are growing faster than non-STEM jobs in the United States, but there is a skills gap. Nationally and here in Pittsburgh, employers increasingly are not able to fill jobs with specific skills. Nurturing a passion for STEAM early on opens up a world of opportunity for Pittsburgh kids to work in an expanding field.

These programming skills will open up opportunities for students to work in the fast-changing world of technology if they so choose. But specific coding skills are not the only benefit of South Fayette’s program. Kids in the district are also honing “soft” skills like problem solving and teamwork, which are equally valuable in a knowledge-based economy. And at every grade level, they are empowered by the chance to create, not just consume, technology.

For example, a small team of high school students designed and coded an app that texts parents when their elementary school student hops on and off the school bus. Professional designers from Pittsburgh-based MAYA helped point out kinks in the app and how to adjust it. The project was part of South Fayette’s Emerging Innovation Leaders program, where students receive support for a project of their choosing from the district.

Meanwhile, at Elizabeth Forward School District in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania,  the DREAM Factory has been up and running since 2013. The art, technology and science department uses the design process in the space which enables students to make just about anything —from candy bars to jigsaw puzzles that they design on modeling software. At the high school the EF Fab, an MIT authorized Fabrication Lab, lets students use digital fabrication equipment to build anything including a  full-size canoe that can float in the school’s pool. Others have been known to spend their lunch in the gaming internship classes building and creating games for local companies.

Pittsburgh Public Schools is also looking to prioritize and prepare kids for a 21st century economy. Next year several Pittsburgh Public schools will become STEAM schools. Some $900,000 in grants will support STEAM programs at several schools in the district, with an emphasis on hands-on learning, ownership, and collaboration.

Our work in Pittsburgh is evidence that public bureaucracies like school systems can lead the way in regional innovation.  The region’s public schools are leaders in preparing their students for what’s next, and in a few years our graduates will be shaping the future as leaders themselves.

For more Future Ready blog posts, please visit

Thomas Ralston is Superintendent of Avonworth School District in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; Bille Rondinelli is  Superintendent of South Fayette School District in South Fayette Township, Pennsylvania and  member of the Remake Learning Council; and Bart Rocco is Superintendent of Elizabeth Forward School District in Borough of Elizabeth and the townships of Elizabeth and Forward Townships in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and member of the Remake Learning Council.   

Future Ready, Future Ready Blog Series

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