Attend a Greater Beltzhoover Inter-Agency Network meeting and it is hard not to notice the teenage boys who are there to politely assist the guests.
These young men are part of the One Small Step mentoring program run by Jon Hairston, one of the organizers for the GBIAN meetings that have been recently taking place at the McKinley Park Recreation Center on Delmont Street.
At the most recent GBIAN gathering on March 28, Mr. Hairston and GBIAN facilitator Dennis O. Brooks praised the young men for their hard work in helping the community, citing them as good examples for others to follow.
And while the One Small Step program has been much appreciated in communities like Beltzhoover, there are the negative stereotypes that has some leaders in the African-American community upset with how a group of students are being treated in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
School board director Mark Brentley, a North Side resident who represents that part of the city, once again spoke at the GBIAN meeting to voice his displeasure with the way the school district is being run through the leadership of Superintendent Mark Roosevelt.
Mr. Brentley's criticism of the district stems from a recent media report about Clayton Academy which is a school for junior-high and high-school age students who have become behavioral problems. These students have been removed from the traditional classroom setting because of their disruptive behavior makes it too difficult for other students to learn.
The school, located on the North Side where students from throughout the city attend, is run by the Community Education Partners (CEP), a Nashville-based alternative-education company. CEP has accepted roughly 250 students, mostly African-American males, for enrollment at the school.
Since the school opened last September, the city police have responded to more than 35 incidents, roughly two dozen of which have been labeled aggravated assaults.
According to parents who have complained to Mr. Brentley about the school, Clayton has become a "fighting ground," for the students who are placed there. An investigative report about the school in a local newspaper back in February claims the school basically has "a survival of the fittest" mentality where security is lax or almost non-existent with the students being out of control because there is little discipline.
In his comments to the Beltzhoover audience, Mr. Brentley compared the school to a "soft prison." The school director wants the contract with CEP to be dissolved which calls for paying CEP approximately $5.7 million annually for six years.
The school is designed to take disruptive students away from the general student population to reduce turmoil and conflict in the classrooms they left, making a better learning environment for teachers and main-stream students.
However, Mr. Brentley disagrees with this philosophy and feels this school will only make the students with behavioral problems even worse. He said these students need positive male role models in their lives to help turn them around, rather than being placed in an environment where no one cares about them and they are being written off from the rest of society.
"We need to get these students out of that environment and give them what they need to succeed," Mr. Brentley said. "They [CEP and the school district] have misled our children and we should be angry and upset about that…We know this is not working. We should be outraged."
State Senator Wayne Fontana (42nd District) also spoke briefly at the meeting, praising the work in the community that Mr. Hairston and Mr. Brooks have done. He also praised the young men from One Small Step, noting, "The young fellas do a great job running this event."
Mr. Fontana said he enjoys receiving positive feedback from the residents and civic leaders of Beltzhoover and he will continue to do what he can as a state senator in making sure the neighborhood is not forgotten in Harrisburg.
"It's a battle to bring back [state funding] to the district," Mr. Fontana said. "My door is always open…I enjoy hearing about the success stories [that take place in Beltzhoover]. You always hear about the negatives, but I know there are a lot of positive things going on here."
The theme for the meeting was "Meet the Birmingham Foundation" night, so there were quite a few directors of various Birmingham Foundation agencies present at the meeting to address the audience.
The guest speakers included Beginning with Books Executive Director Keith Kondrich, Children's Sickle Cell Foundation Executive Director Andrea Williams, Achieva Director of Development David Tinker, Adagio Health Program Coordinator Aaron Thomas, Healthy Home Resources Executive Director Dr. Michael Tobin, Minority and Women Educational Labor Agency Recruitment Coordinator Kirk Anderson, Every Child Inc. Intervention Specialist Nicole Gannon and Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank CEO Joyce Rothermel.
The next GBIAN meeting is planned for Thursday, April 17, 6 p.m. at the Upper McKinley Park Recreation Center, 900 Delmont Street in Beltzhoover.