Pittsburgh Public Schools and community partners are establishing another method of improving the low ratio of teachers of color in the majority-Black school district.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the district’s board approved a new program that will provide around 35 full-tuition college scholarships to high school graduates who commit to teaching in the city for five years after earning their degrees.

After a report in 2018 about how few teachers of color there were in Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Public Schools took note, said Alexis Howard, the district’s director of talent management. 

Pennsylvania had the sixth worst ratio of teachers of color to students of color. And the research by that point was clear: All students do better when there are teachers of color but especially Black and Brown children. The list of measurable improvements include better attendance, fewer discipline issues and higher graduation rates. 

Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Schools [PPS] employs a higher rate of more diverse teachers than the state as a whole but it’s still below the national average. Fewer than one in five PPS teachers are Black or brown while two out of every three students are.

The problem, Howard said, is it’s hard to draw qualified Black candidates to the city. The district went to a job fair in Atlanta, for example, and only received three applications. Many people who grow up in a place like Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia don’t see many people who look like them in Pittsburgh. “Listen, if you are a person of color, you are not moving to this city,” she said. “It’s bigger than the school district, it’s about the city at large.”

But one advantage Pittsburgh does have, Howard said, is that many people who grow up here will stay here. Some families live in the same house for multiple generations. Howard herself moved back to Pittsburgh after going to college in South Carolina to be close to family.

The scholarship program is the new addition to a suite of efforts to diversify the city’s teachers.

In 2019, the district started a program to help its paraprofessionals, who are majority Black, to become certified teachers. Point Park University and Carlow University offer remote and hybrid options, so the aides could keep working while getting their degrees. 

“Having Black teachers is essential and also having Black teachers who are teaching from Black pedagogical curricular traditions and being supported in that” is essential.

Sabina Vaught, the chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Teaching, Learning and Leading

Twenty-one paraprofessionals started the program last year and 20 are on pace to finish this year, Howard said. They will be allowed to apply for jobs along with other teachers inside the district before outside candidates are interviewed during the hiring process for 2022-2023. About two-thirds of the paraprofessionals in the program are not white. “So that’s a win,” she said.

If hired, those new teachers would represent around 1% of the teacher workforce next year.

Also in 2019, the district committed to offering teaching jobs to graduates of its teaching magnet program at Brashear High School, as long as they came back to teach within 10 years. The Brashear program graduates around 25 students per year, according to the district.

Scholarship information

The 2018 teacher diversity report showed that the education system is losing many potential Black educators at every step in the process: in high school, college, education programs, hiring and teacher retention.

The new scholarship program being unveiled is designed to encourage any interested PPS students to come back to teach in the district.

Debbie and William Demchak have donated $1 million to the new effort. (William is chairman, president and CEO of the PNC Financial Services Group, and Debbie is secretary of the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship board.) 

The scholarship would provide 100% of a recipient’s college costs, after all other scholarships and grants have been applied. They would leave college with no debt.

The recipients have to commit to majoring in teaching, attend a university where they can student-teach at PPS and then teach at PPS for five years after they graduate. 

“That’s a big ask,” said Saleem Ghubril, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, which will administer the scholarship. This big commitment may mean that only a select few will be both interested and eligible; Ghubril said there is enough funding for about 35 recipients, and he expects all of the scholarships to be given away in four years or fewer.

The 2018 Research for Action report on teacher diversity identified many different steps at which Pennsylvania is losing potential teachers of color. (Screenshot)

A key part of the program is keeping the students engaged through the potential points where many fall out of the teaching pipeline.The scholarship will provide incentives for the recipients to participate in the program through college, said Ghubril. There was talk of potentially turning the scholarship money into loans for any scholars who dropped out before completing their full commitment. Instead, they decided to try to draw scholars into being so involved in local education that it would be only natural that they stay to teach.

For example, the recipients — to be called Demchak Scholars — will be paid to attend the Pitt Educators Academy, a five-week education training after their junior or senior year of high school. They will also have professional development over spring and winter breaks in college. They will be paid to teach during their college summer years, either at PPS or as mentors for the Pitt Educators Academy, building their network in the Pittsburgh education community.

“We think the Demchak scholars will be highly sought-after candidates for teaching.”

“We think the Demchak scholars will be highly sought-after candidates for teaching,” Ghubril said. “And all of those programs are again about building that network and relationships that make it natural, ‘I’m going to teach when I graduate.’”

To be eligible to apply, students have had to attend a PPS school since ninth grade, maintain a 2.5 GPA and a 90% attendance record. The application says preference will be given to students of color, especially Black students, as they make up the largest portion of students at PPS. 

PPS board members Pam Harbin and Devon Taliaferro raised concerns at a board meeting last week that the scholarship guidelines would exclude many Black students, who currently have a GPA too low to qualify. Ghubril said the academic requirements are an important part of the process in selecting who will be a good teacher. 

Currently, hundreds of PPS students of color are eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarships and would be eligible to apply for a Demchak scholarship, Ghubril said.

The scholarship application opens in February and must be completed by March 21, 2022. 

A press conference to formally announce the new scholarship is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

A more radical approach

Sabina Vaught, the new chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s new Department of Teaching, Learning and Leading, said initiatives to promote teacher diversity are good but they are not, on their own, sufficient. 

“That kind of approach does nothing to change the whiteness of the system,” she said. “It brings them in but forces them into systems that don’t change, so people leave the teaching profession.”

The country lost more than 40,000 Black teachers in the decade after Brown v. Board of Education as school districts shifted students away from Black schools in the name of integration. As a result, Vaught said, the country lost a whole generation of Black educational leaders.

Pitt is starting a new program to try to regain Black systems of education by partnering a Black high school student, a Black college student, a young Black teacher and an experienced Black educator, she said. The idea is to move away from a factory system of teacher training toward a more collective system rooted in Black teaching methods, she said. The program is starting with four “micro-learning collaboratives” in the Woodland Hills School District this year but plans to expand to eight groups and include PPS over the next four years.

“Having Black teachers is essential and also having Black teachers who are teaching from Black pedagogical curricular traditions and being supported in that” is essential, she said.

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for...