On the corner of the cluttered desk of Dr. Linda Clautti, CEO of Urban Pathways Charter School,
there’s an open jar, full of candy, that acts as a sort of homing device for high school students with problems they need to unload. When Dr. Clautti’s office door is open, students know they’re welcome to wander in, and many do, on the pretense of helping themselves to a sugar fix.
A simple greeting of “How’s it going?” from Dr. Clautti is permission for the students to speak their mind.
The girls, says Dr. Clautti, will often “spill their guts.” The boys, they’re typically less verbal. But the chocolate therapy they receive from Dr. Clautti is part of what makes the free charter school different from your average urban high school. And the inspiration that the Urban Pathways’ chief administrator subsequently ignites in these students is why Dr. Clautti is receiving the Strong Women, Strong Girls’ Spark Award at the second annual Strong Awards
event on April 30.
One of the qualities that impressed the Spark Award selection committee is Dr. Clautti’s commitment to mentoring girls. The WISE program at Urban Pathways, which stands for Women in Sync Everywhere, pairs each female student with a professional female mentor not only throughout the high school years but also through the young woman’s freshman year of college. (There’s an identical program for boys, BAAM, or Benefitting African American Males.)
Ronnell Anderson, an Urban Pathways Class of 2010 alum and now an English Professional Writing major at Slippery Rock University, is grateful for WISE. Growing up in an urban setting in which most of her classmates were Black, Ronnell was unprepared for the discrimination she experienced as a transplant in a rural environment in which many fellow students were culturally ignorant. When she called her mentor for advice, her mentor contacted Dr. Clautti, who reached out to a peer at Slippery Rock who took advantage of the “teachable” moment in order to diffuse the issue.
This hands-on help is typical of the support that Ronnell says she received during her four years at Urban Pathways (UP), which is located on the upper floors of a Penn Ave. office building Downtown. “You know your teachers and they know you, so when there was something going on at home that was affecting us at school, they knew, because they knew us,” says Ronnell, now a sophomore at Slippery Rock. “I feel more comfortable at UP than anywhere else. When I come home, it’s the first place I go. And it was Dr. Clautti who built that atmosphere for me.”
Getting students “in the college mode” is what the atmosphere at UP is all about, says Dr. Clautti. For the past two years, every Urban Pathways senior has been accepted into a college or university, and more than three-quarters of the 2010 class, like Ronnell, went on to become college sophomores. These are stunningly impressive statistics, particularly in light of the challenges Dr. Clautti’s high school students face.
Nearly 90 percent of UP’s 500 K-3 and 6-12 students who come from Pittsburgh and some 12 surrounding school districts are poor enough to qualify for the federal reduced or free lunch program. Many have lost friends or relatives due to violence. Some have fathers in prison. Almost all are the first in their families to ever attend college. Many are among the first in their families to finish high school.
Few outside of the Urban Pathways support system have high expectations or even any expectations at all for these kids. But Dr. Clautti doesn’t apologize for her belief that all of the school’s students, most of whom are African Americans, need the passport that a college degree can offer. In fact, it’s Urban Pathways’ stated vision that all students will be accepted into secondary schools and also obtain the financial aid necessary to allow them to attend.
While Dr. Clautti doesn’t personally mentor every Urban Pathways student, she’s credited with creating the culture of stability at the school that allows kids to flourish. But it wasn’t a cake walk for a white woman with no children to step into the role of the school’s CEO nine years ago, even though in every leadership job she’s had, she’s replaced a man who was asked to leave. The following year some of the students on the first day of school were surprised to find Dr. Clautti still at her desk with the open candy jar full. “You came back!” they said.
“These are kids who are used to people coming and going in their lives,” Dr. Clautti explains. “So they challenge you, to see how far they can trust you.”
Originally from Youngstown, Ohio, Dr. Clautti graduated from an all-girls college, St. Mary’s of Notre Dame, before relocating to Washington, D.C. for her first job as an elementary school teacher in a private school. She’s also taught high school, was a principal and eventually superintendent of a public school district. At Urban Pathways, “We’re giving urban kids what I know that private school kids have.”
What UP’s students get in Dr. Clautti’s care is a springboard to a future that’s brighter for them than it was for their parents. In addition to hands-on support, they get firsthand experience, whether it’s raising the funds themselves and then negotiating the contract with a Downtown hotel manager for the senior prom, or formally presenting a proposal for their senior project to a panel of their teachers and Dr. Clautti. They also get an environment where it’s okay to ask for help, because at UP, the CEO’s candy jar is always full.
Interested in becoming a WISE or BAMM mentor? Email here
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Beth Marcello is director of Women's Business Development at PNC and a strong--let's make that fearless--advocate for women in the community.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen