Can we fix Pittsburgh Public Schools? Here’s what the A+ Schools 2020 Report has to say

“Our systems are broken, but our people are resilient,” says James Fogarty in the A+ Schools “2020 Report to the Community.”

Under normal circumstances, the annual report gathers information from local schools and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The report is intended to paint an accurate and unbiased picture of Pittsburgh’s educational trends and issues.  When the pandemic forced the state to cancel standardized testing last spring, A+ Schools decided to look beyond just data this year, says the executive director.

“One of the things we wanted to do since we didn’t have new test data to analyze, is to think about the system,” he says. “We’re talking about school data but in service of trying to understand where the inequities exist and how they exist. It’s about problem-solving and understanding, rather than blame or shame. There’s an urgent need for folks to make changes.”

The system governing Pittsburgh’s schools, he says, is designed to get the outcomes that it gets: a persistent racial achievement gap, chronic absenteeism and disciplinary measures that punish more black students than white.

“The fact that we have disparities in student achievement, the fact that there is a real high segregation among our schools, it’s a design that’s baked in, based on our history,” he says. “Both the school system and we as a society have work to do. We can’t look at the school system in isolation and say, ‘Hey, it should be doing better.’ We have to look at ourselves and say, ‘We have an American caste system that’s in our DNA and we have not addressed that.’ ”

In 2020, the pandemic, incidents of police violence, and street protests opened people’s eyes to the fact that “we have a powerful reckoning to do and it impacts all of our systems,” Fogarty says. He points to recent comments made by John Pulcastro, a supervisory analyst at the Pittsburgh FBI, that the region is a hotbed for white supremacy and says simply: “To be a black resident in Pittsburgh is a difficult thing and we need to start acknowledging that.”

The 144-page A+ Schools report (download the complete report here) underscores the barriers that black students face in several ways. It finds:

  • The identification of “gifted” gives preference to those of higher socioeconomic status and white students, leading to disparities in access to more rigorous high school courses.
  • Black students have higher rates of suspension and chronic absence as early as kindergarten. From the start of the 2019-20 school year until March 13, when schools closed because of the pandemic, chronic absence rates ranged from a low of 17 percent in fourth grade to 48 percent in 12th grade.
  • Disparate treatment contributes to achievement gaps that begin in third grade, the first year of state testing. Data for 2019 PSSA and Keystone exams show 35 percent of Pittsburgh’s black students, 48 percent of Hispanic students and 60 percent of Asian students are proficient in reading, compared to 69 percent of white students. In math, 18 percent of black students, 30 percent of Hispanic students, 51 percent of white students and 53 percent of Asian students are proficient.
  • Entrance requirements at Pittsburgh Public Schools’ magnet schools contribute to the exclusion of students living in poverty and those with disabilities.
  • Most Pittsburgh Public students are black (51 percent) and most of the district’s teachers are white (85 percent).
  • Graduation rates between 2017 and 2019 (the most recent data available) have held fairly steady (76 percent of Black students, 64 percent of Hispanic students, 82 percent of Asian students and 86 percent of white students in 2018-19). Most students of color are less likely to graduate within four years than their white counterparts.

The bright spots

Despite these long-standing problems, the report strikes an optimistic tone, pointing out bright spots within the school system in its “Rising Up” section. It specifies ways to attack disparities, such as providing hands-on attention to students, building better relationships among students, teachers and families, and providing families with supports so schools can focus on teaching.

“I know not one parent who doesn’t care for their child and doesn’t want the best for them,” says Fogarty. “There are schools that work diligently to build strong relationships with families and to understand them. As a result, they have nearly zero chronic absences. Those parents aren’t dissimilar to parents in other school buildings.”

He adds: “We’re not saying it’s a wholly unjust system; it’s not. That’s why we have bright spots, to remind ourselves that even in the face of inequity we’ve tried to address that.”

Schools that stand out, according to the report, include South Brook 6-8, Colfax K-8, Fulton PreK-5, Dilworth PreK-5 and Perry High School, all of which have built strong relationships among stakeholders and a culture of safety, honesty and respect to support student achievement and encourage mentorship.

How to help fix the system

“We can fix this,” the report’s executive summary concludes, noting that “specific school leaders and school communities are tackling problems of equity head-on. Get involved in a school as a volunteer, tutor or mentor. And vote in every school board election with an eye towards what the candidates will do to redesign the system so that it is much more equitable.”

In addition to addressing specific issues in Pittsburgh schools, the community as a whole should be discussing whether to eliminate neighborhood feeder schools that contribute to segregation, Fogarty says. “To change it does have consequences,” he notes. “There are tradeoffs to saying we want to have a greater mix. Which kids have to leave their neighborhoods? We should be having a conversation about how we better integrate schools.”

In many ways, fixing what’s wrong with America starts with its schools and restructuring them to eliminate institutional racism.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying America is fundamentally a racist country,” Fogarty says. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity for all. It is both. America is a place where our ideals matter, and it’s a place where we have not lived up to our ideals for way too many of our people for way too long.”

Pittsburgh has the ability to change the system, he says. The city is uniquely positioned to do this because of its resources: strong and involved philanthropic organizations and largesse from the tax system that allows PPS to spend $26,909 per pupil and pay some teachers $90,000.

“We have everything we need,” Fogarty says. “The fact is, though, we’ve built a system that in many ways preferences and privileges white families and white students and we have a duty to understand that and reckon with that, and then move forward to ameliorate that.”