Nina Giordano Unitas has been senior program officer for arts education at Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) since March 2022.
Her 24 years of experience as a public school teacher and administrator, along with a master’s degree in Public Management, Educational Leadership from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy, have given her a wide-ranging grasp of contemporary teaching trends and theories.
Yet the essence of her educational philosophy boils down to one word: joy.
“What if we walked into a school and could feel joy?” she asks. “The quickest, most efficient, most effective way to do that is partnering with cultural organizations and bringing artists into classrooms. The most amazing things will happen.”
Giordano Unitas moved to her present position after serving five years as the PPS visual arts coordinator and 11 years as a principal in the Canon-McMillan School District. From 1999-2006, she taught art at Chartiers Valley Primary School upon graduating from Penn State with a B.S. in Art Education.
At a time when many U.S. public school districts have been downsizing their arts education staff, Pittsburgh Public Schools is recommitting vision and resources to the arts. Giordano Unitas credits PPS Superintendent Wayne N. Walters with re-emphasizing the role of arts in the curriculum and helping her complete the district’s arts education leadership team.
“I have a lot of dreams and hopes about what we can accomplish,” she says. “It starts with infusing creativity back into our schools.”
NEXTpittsburgh spoke to Giordano Unitas as she prepared to travel to Kenya for a monthlong Fulbright-Hays research trip with the University of Pittsburgh Center for African Studies.
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NEXTpittsburgh: What changes in arts education programming have you seen since you came to PPS?
Nina Giordano Unitas: I would say we’re building a lot of valuable partnerships. Just before Mitch Swain left as executive director of Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, he stepped up and said, “How can we help you? We want to help.” We had a big meeting organized by the Council at the Children’s Museum, who were lovely to host us. A lot of stakeholders from arts and cultural organizations were there. Our superintendent Dr. Walters spoke, and we took some questions and answers, and it was an authentic, open conversation with people who want to partner with PPS. I think that’s a big piece that has changed. Having Dr. Walters speaking to arts and cultural organizations by my side was huge.
NEXTpittsburgh: It’s a necessary validation.
Giordano Unitas: You have to elevate the value of the arts. There are a couple of ways to do that. You do that with what we say about what we value, and then with what we do when it comes to what’s happening in our schools. Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is always going to step up, they’re amazing. We do need to make sure we’re partnering with smaller and mid-sized organizations as well.
NEXTpittsburgh: A lot of those organizations would likely be very interested in working with PPS.
Giordano Unitas: A primary goal is relationship building. We have to continue to build relationships with community groups and arts organizations because all of education is relationships. And we’re doing that. Also, it is very important that all professional development is of an intensely high quality and meaningful and impacts student outcomes. That’s another major goal we have, and we’re leveraging partners for that.
NEXTpittsburgh: How does professional development impact student outcomes?
Giordano Unitas: One thing I find super unique about Pittsburgh Public Schools is we have a lot of teachers on staff who are practicing artists. It’s important that we focus on making our mid-year professional development a hands-on making workshop. The teachers love it because they make and create for six hours and are back to the root of what we’re helping children do. Pittsburgh Glass Center takes our teachers for free. The Cultural Trust always hosts a workshop for us, and so does Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. It’s magical.
NEXTpittsburgh: You had a profound professional development experience of your own a few years back at a Harvard University workshop.
Giordano Unitas: My week at Project Zero Classroom at Harvard Graduate School of Education was a life-changing experience for me. Project Zero has been studying how to use arts in learning and teaching for almost 60 years. It blends theory and practice and how to nurture creativity in all people, and they create a week of intensive learning with through-lines.
NEXTpittsburgh: Are you using that in your professional development for arts education at PPS?
Giordano Unitas: One of the through-lines we’ve been working on is, how do we design and facilitate learning for love, justice and equity? It’s a through-line that guides our professional development, the concept of the arts being transformative. Looking at why we design learning the way we do is definitely something we’re going to focus on this coming year.
Last year Dr. Walters invited educational expert Gholdy Muhammad to speak at our PPS Summer Leadership Academy. Her latest book is “Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy,” and she advocates co-creating learning with students. National core arts standards are about creativity. They are about performing. They are about connecting. Curriculum can be based on approved educational standards, but it must be focused on our kids if we want the outcomes of our students to grow. That’s the only way.
NEXTpittsburgh: Were you an active artist growing up?
Giordano Unitas: As a child, I could look at a picture, and I could draw it right as it was. My eyes could see it, and I could draw it. However, I did not take an actual arts course in high school until my senior spring semester. At Penn State, I ended up in the printmaking studio and got an art education degree with a minor in art history. I recently got a potter’s wheel and kiln, and I’m ready to take up where I left off after college.
NEXTpittsburgh: By the time readers see this, you will have completed your Kenya trip. What are you expecting from that experience?
Giordano Unitas: It’s going to be pretty powerful. It’s a Fulbright-Hays group project the anthropologist Dr. Maureen Porter organized for educators. We have a detailed itinerary. We’re visiting schools; we’re going to have lectures focusing on innovative practices. We’re focusing on arts. There’s a group of us that have a background in arts, and we’re taking some art materials with us. We’re hoping to have the kids maybe do a mural.
NEXTpittsburgh: No doubt you’ll bring back something invaluable from those kids to kids in Pittsburgh.
Giordano Unitas: When we nurture creativity within our children, we’re talking about fostering the next creative beings who will be creating and making the world for all of us. And that can start right here at PPS.