A+ Schools’ James Fogarty embraces role of positive deviant as an advocate of Pittsburgh Public Schools

At Arsenal Middle School in Lawrenceville, math achievement for African-American students is three times greater than the rest of the school system. In a building where few students are proficient in math upon arrival, Arsenal Principal Patty Camper emphasizes growth in achievement.

Previously, administrators had been focusing on the minority of students who had a chance to reach proficiency on the PSSA exams, to the detriment of the rest of the class. Camper and her staff changed course to emphasize working “hard, intensively and purposefully” with all of the students in the class. They encourage kids to participate and take risks while teachers focus daily planning on what students need to know.

If you think about the starting level of their students and how far the teachers take them over the course of three years, “it’s really remarkable,” says Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools, which advocates for the educational interests of Pittsburgh kids. He sees the leap in achievement as an opportunity to try those strategies in other schools.

Fogarty’s approach as a positive deviant looks at the encouraging news from local schools that are doing it right — and what other schools can learn from them. He sees Pittsburgh’s abundant resources for students and teachers as a reason to smile.

Fogarty cites the 11:1 student-to-teacher ratio and $25,000 per student funding at Pittsburgh Public Schools. The region’s foundation assets per capita rank fourth in the country, trailing only Seattle, San Francisco and New York, according to Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania. And at 21,000 students, the district’s size relative to similar urban areas is manageable — some might even say enviable.

“We’ve got this confluence of facts,” says Fogarty. “When people complain about class size, I’m like, ‘That’s cute.’ ”

Fogarty grew up in San Francisco, where he says his middle-school class size ranged from 40 to 45 students. His travels around the country on behalf of A+ Schools further emphasize the relative riches afforded Pittsburgh students today.

When A+ Schools released its annual Report to the Community on Public School Progress in Pittsburgh, the data showed an array of social ills and demographic drawbacks that afflict the population. According to statistics from Pittsburgh Public Schools and the state Department of Education, 71 percent of the student body falls into the economically disadvantaged category.

Environmental factors — think elevated lead levels in one city neighborhood or a school building downwind from a plant spewing pollution — further complicate children’s capacity for success.

Yet despite low levels of math proficiency and chronic absenteeism at Pittsburgh Public Schools, Fogarty sees progress. This policy advocate and lawyer is eager to share stories of specific schools that have reversed troubling trends.

One example that reflects Fogarty’s optimistic outlook is Schiller 6-8 in the North Side, which went from having 36 percent of its students chronically absent in 2013 to a rate of only 3 percent in 2018-2019.

Fogarty sees the positive repercussions that Schiller’s success story can have on similar schools in the district.

“They’re facing what seems to be unmanageable systemic problems,” he says. He attributes the turnaround to a United Way partnership that supported the counselor, principal and building teachers to go the extra mile in addressing student absences. “Can we focus on what is within our control?”

Fogarty has his own reasons for staying the course when it comes to quality education.

As a parent with two young children in Pittsburgh Public Schools, Fogarty is personally invested in improving the educational opportunities for all students. In a district where progress is hard-won and success is even scarcer, Fogarty stays the course with a philosophy built from the facts at hand.

“We have everything we need to succeed,” Fogarty says. “Let’s just get to work.”