A+ Schools leader speaks on ‘bright spots’ and persisting inequities in Pittsburgh Public Schools

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The A+ Schools report highlights 'bright spots' and many inequities at PPS. (Screenshot of the lead page of the report)

Broken systems. Resilient people.

Tales of the two blend together in a yearly report released Monday by A+ Schools, a nonprofit education advocacy group, which looks at Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] – a district serving just above 21,000 K-12 students, struggling with stubborn inequities but still seeing some hopeful spots and potential solutions in anecdotal evidence.

The nearly 150-page report analyzes data trends across PPS. Through numbers and anecdotes, the report illustrates how systemic challenges, like teacher demographics, chronic absence and student suspensions, have led to an inequitable educational experience for students. The report also tells stories of success within specific district schools, in hopes that school leaders replicate good practices.

Notable takeaways:

  • More than 20% of 9-12 grade students at PPS are missing 20% or more school days;
  • K-12 enrollment has declined in recent years, but average spending per student has increased;
  • In the 2019-20 school year, Black students made up 79% of the total number of students that were suspended, though they were only 52% of the total student population;
  • 14 out of 50 regular PPS schools are highly segregated, with a Black student population of 75% or more.

A+ Schools Executive Director James Fogarty spoke with PublicSource about the new data available in the report, the effects of segregated schools on students and key opportunities for Pittsburgh families.

The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s new about this report? What findings in this report do you think are completely unique?

In the school data pages, we added a bunch of stuff. We added teacher demographics. We've never had teacher group demographics on the page before, but, you know, a couple of years ago, Research for Action out of Philadelphia did this statewide report looking at the diversity of our teaching force, finding that like 94% of our teachers were white. And so knowing that our student diversity in the state is much greater than that, we wanted to start tracking in more real time what the teacher diversity was. Not that white teachers can't teach Black students. We're not saying that. What we're saying is we know that it matters to Black students to have at least one Black teacher in their lifetime before third grade. It matters in terms of their later college outcomes. If they have two [Black teachers], it increases their likelihood of getting to and through college. This is something that matters. We have a district that's done a lot to try and bring in teachers of color. Overall, I think we're at like 16% of our teaching force is teachers of color and 84% are white. That's almost triple what the state average is. But at that number, we're still, you know, a far cry from matching the diversity of our student body.

A+ Schools Executive Director James Fogarty speaks during a Q&A session about the 2020 community report, which highlights bright spots and inequities in Pittsburgh Public Schools. (Screenshot)

A+ Schools Executive Director James Fogarty speaks during a Q&A session about the 2020 community report, which highlights bright spots and inequities in Pittsburgh Public Schools. (Screenshot)

The other thing we did was add National Board Certification just because we kind of wanted to see does a critical mass of national board certified teachers in a school lead to academic achievement and outcomes? And we haven't dug deep into that. But if you start to look, if you flip through page by page and you start to see where there are higher concentrations of national board certified teachers, we are seeing in some of those schools improved outcomes for kids. Right. So is it correlative? Is it causative? We don't know yet, but we wanted to start tracking it because we know that training, the research showed that, that training actually helps increase student achievement. And so, we wanted folks to know about it and encourage on some level, encourage schools and teachers to look at that as an alternative to getting more credits. ...

And then because we didn't have test data this year, what we wanted to do is provide a three-year average of test data from 2017 to 2019, which is the last set of tests that we had, to be able to kind of create a clearer picture of the trends in schools and disaggregate that by racial subgroup, and the hope there is we start to compare third to fifth grade outcomes, sixth and eighth grade outcomes. You start to see potentially some patterns that we hope that folks will start asking questions of the school board members and administrators in the district.

And finally, we added career and technical education numbers and participation because there are a few studies that have shown career technical education participation leads to greater engagement and more likelihood of graduating.

What do you hope will be the main takeaways for Pittsburgh Public families and the community-at-large?

The ways in which we label children is doing harm. The fact that kids as early as kindergarten and first grade can be identified as so-called gifted and then provided a bus pass to Greenway once a week and told that they are special and deserving of project-based learning based on a measure that is malleable. Yet under the law, it is treated as fixed. We want that to change. I mean, if the majority of kids you're identifying as gifted, the vast majority are coming from higher socioeconomic status households. Then you're not measuring their gifts or their talents. You're measuring the background knowledge that they bring to the evaluation process that then gives them services.

The problem is those services set them up to be able to take more rigorous courses in high school automatically. Yes, there's a way for students who don't have a gifted IEP to get into those courses in high school. But the bar is higher for them, right? Those students have to apply. They have to be recommended by a teacher. And so if you're not labeled gifted early, it's harder for you to get the classes that make it easier for you to go to college. And that, to me, is backwards. And so we've had this conversation with parents at Allderdice and talking about like, how could we fix this? How can we structure the schools so that every student has the supports they need to be able to succeed in the multiple rigorous courses that you offer?

And there was a lot of pushback. The families we worked with started to have these conversations at the school, and they got a lot of pushback from other families saying, well, those kids aren't prepared. They didn't do the work. Maybe the families don't appreciate school as much, or care about it as much as we do. A lot of assumptions in it. That's why I wanted to talk about the past because I want people to take away that this is not inevitable. This is structured. This is built into both our system, and our school system is reflective of the society at large. And so the issues that we see, whether that might be the sort of neighborhood segregation that we see or the segregation of our more rigorous courses, the AP courses, all of that is by design.

And if we want to change it, it's not that there aren't individuals who have power to make that change. There are. But they aren't the only ones to blame. The choices that we make as families also push the district to be more inequitable. And if we want to change it, we also have to reckon with that, with those choices, with the types of resource and opportunity hoarding that white families do in this district and really think through, like, what is it that we're going to do to change our behavior so that the students who have greater needs get what they need.

A key takeaway from the report is the teacher demographics. While most PPS students are Black, many PPS teachers are white. Only 5.6% of Pennsylvania teachers were people of color in 2016-17, according to a 2018 report by Research for Action. What is the impact of not having many Black teachers in a district like PPS, where the student population is 51% Black?

There is a higher likelihood when you have a Black student and a white teacher and when there's a discipline issue, that Black student will be more harshly disciplined. We just know that. There's a higher likelihood of Black families not feeling connected to white teachers who are teaching in a classroom. Is that certain to happen? No, but the probability is that's greater, which means [students are] less likely to be engaged in the school community or with a teacher. Doesn't mean it doesn't happen. It does. There are plenty of schools where it's happening. There's a higher likelihood that because of the cultural differences between Black and white and [white teachers] not seeing the promise of a child, that gifted Black children are not being recommended for that evaluation [for the gifted program].

Are there solutions for this within the district?

I see the teacher pipeline problem as a problem that starts in that stat around third grade. Like our teacher certification process, rightfully so, requires a bachelor's degree. And if you really want to move forward, you really need a master's degree, you need to be certified. So you need to be able to go to college, be able to get to and through college. And they need to be able to take a series of tests that show that you're ready to teach. That process weeds out lots of folks. And then, when you have a school system where you have this cultural mismatch for so many years, you create a lack of desire. Not all, but some Black children say, I don't want to be part of a system that didn't treat me well. I don't want to work with people who didn't like me and [whom] I didn't like when I was in school. And so those problems really start young. One of the things the district has done for years and is working on kind of building out is their teaching magnet at Brashear High School, which takes a cohort of students, provides them a set of experiences to get them interested in teaching

The second thing the district has done is said, “Look, we have a number of paraprofessionals, many who come from our parent ranks.” Who start out coming and helping at the school,” and the school taps them to say, “Hey, why don't you go get your parent certificate so you can come and work with us?” And so then they do. And so you have a more diverse cohort of folks that are paraprofessionals in our system.

This year’s report includes chronic absence data to show students who are missing schools 10% and 20% of the time. Why are you all including 20% chronic absent data this year?

We've always done 10% or more. Attendance Works, which is this national organization that's done a ton of research on the impact of chronic absence on school outcomes, everything from graduation rates to school and course failure, etc. So we're really just following the lead of the national research. But what we wanted to do was ... So you have this group of students that are 10% absent or more, then we wanted to say... how many more are absent even longer, and where's the cutoff? So then we looked at what percentage of students are absent 20% or more. We were able to get that data a couple of years ago. We didn't share it at first because we wanted to see sort of what it was looking like, where there were higher concentrations. And then this year we decided it made sense just to provide it so that families could understand.

The thing that we think it helps folks understand, too, is like when you see outcome data that looks like, huh, we're not getting great outcomes. If chronic absence is really high at the school then that's part of the story, right, and so that's a culture question for the adults in the school. It's also a question for the folks who might be saying it's OK, you know, my kids only missed a couple of days of school this month. They're fine, right? Like they're going to school pretty much every day. But they had a thing, well, if you miss two days of school a month over the course of the school year, you're chronically absent, with all of the negative attending consequences that come with that. And so we want folks to really stay focused on that. We want to get the message out to families.

How does chronic absence happen? And what is the impact of chronic absenteeism on a student’s educational career and life?

It can happen by just missing as few as two days a month. The chronic absence is a measure that includes both excused absences and unexcused absences. I think before, we thought of truancy. And truancy really hides —when that’s your measure of daily attendance — truancy really hides a whole bunch of students who might be quiet, might show up mostly but are missing here and there. And so what chronic absence does is says, let's look at just the amount of time you're in school because, you know, time does matter to learning. The time you spend on a task does matter. ... It's also important because our state has adopted it as a measure of school quality across the state. So for federal reporting purposes, under the Every Student Succeeds Act in Pennsylvania, chronic absence is one of the factors that's looked at to determine how your school is doing.

It's real important for us that folks understand that all it takes is two days a month to be out for your child to be chronically absent, and that the impact of that can really set your child behind because, again, the research that Attendance Works put out, and we link to some of it in the executive summary of the book, really shows detrimental effects across a whole wide range of outcomes. The biggest of which being not graduating high school. If you look at the long-term economic data, especially for Black children that become Black adults that don't have a high school diploma, the economic prospects for those children are not good in this country for all of the other historical and current reasons that we've talked about. And so we know that getting students through high school and learning as much as you can is critical to future economic success. But it doesn't promise it.

In the conference on Monday, it was said that 14 of 50 regular schools are highly segregated, meaning they have a Black student population that is 75% or more. Which schools are we talking about?

The flip side of that, too, is that while we don’t have any schools that are 75% or more white, we have a couple that come close. So, when we’re talking about segregation, it goes both ways. It’s how white folk and Black folk are segregated in the city. But if I were to look at the schools, Faison at 94% Black, Fulton at 77% Black, Liberty is 78% Black, Lincoln at 91% Black, Lyndon [at] 78% Black, Miller [at] 93% Black. And again, if you think about where these schools are … they’re in highly-segregated neighborhoods, of the Hill, of Homewood.

What trends do we see in segregated schools?

Again, this isn't to say there aren't great examples historically of highly segregated schools that are really successful by Black and Brown children. There are.

But I will say that in Pittsburgh, generally the schools that are most highly segregated with high concentrations of poverty, and unfortunately, as the mayor's commission report laid out, that outcomes, especially economic outcomes for Black families in Pittsburgh are not good. So, as you get more highly segregated, you increase poverty here, because that's what we do in Pittsburgh, unfortunately. And what we see is that those schools have less access to new teachers. They're often the last to hire because they're seen as less desirable schools because of the issues. They often have higher principal churn, not 100% of the time, but often you see the leadership change. They often have high churn in their classes. Those factors end up having a significant impact.

Much of this project is also about exploring the options that families have. What are some options you hope families turn to, based on what was found in the report?

There is a whole school choice section — we hope families read it, understand what their rights are and what their options are. There are magnet options. You should explore them. If your child is artistically inclined, you should be thinking about those schools. If your child has an interest in science and math careers, if your child is more hands-on and wants to do more career and technical education, there are options within this system.

I think sometimes when we think about PPS, we think about it in sort of a monolithic way. But there is diversity in the offerings both in the district and in our charter schools. As a public option, charters provide a set of other opportunities for kids and families, and we encourage families to explore those as well. The other thing we want folks to do in terms of thinking about options is really think about how the choices that they're making for their own family are impacting other families and understand what they might be able to do to fix that. I think that's where it's harder.

Now, I would argue if you're equity-minded, you might think, let's think about how we can structure the schools so that it makes it possible for all students to be able to participate. That's hard work. That takes convincing. I think it takes some real deep reflection, some conversations among the staff and parents to really move the needle on that. 

What are some of the central solutions proposed in this report?

What we believe is that the solutions are in our schools already. The solutions exist with our families and in our students. There's no magic bullet. We can scour the research all we want. But at the end of the day, Pittsburgh has the ability to change this if we want. And it's by looking at schools like Dilworth, like Colfax, like Beechwood, like Arsenal 6-8, like City High. Looking at those schools and really finding out what they're doing well to address certain issues as they work on improvement is how we're going to unlock the potential here.

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org.

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