As Pittsburgh Public Schools tries to address attendance challenges that worsened during the pandemic, it faces long-term structural problems that have left the city with segregated schools, inequitable funding and the loss of thousands of students, according to nonprofit A+ Schools 2021 annual report to the community.

The report focuses on a handful of Pittsburgh schools that are bucking the overall trends to provide models for other district schools to follow. 

The annual report by the nonprofit education advocacy organization has historically focused on some of the important data and trends in the city’s schools. But during the pandemic, the lack of comprehensive testing data caused the nonprofit to focus more on success stories and identifying structural problems. 

A chart in A+ Schools 2021 report. (Screenshot)

“Telling the district that things aren’t working hasn’t yielded the outcomes that we’ve wanted,” said James Fogarty, the executive director of A+ Schools*, during a Monday press conference to highlight the new report. 

The report focuses on bright spots like fewer chronic absences at Schiller 6-8, an arts education program at Beechwood K-5 and an increase in AP tests taken at Westinghouse Academy.

But there are few enrollment bright spots: Only four schools have added students since 2017. The other 50 schools have lost students. Over the past five years, the district has lost 2,848 students, according to the report, which is about one in every eight students during that period. The pandemic appears to have made this trend even worse, with a big dropoff in kindergarteners enrolling this year, according to a recent report by WESA.

The students that remain in Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] are disproportionately low income. Only about 20% of the city’s residents are classified as in poverty by the U.S. census, but 64% of Pittsburgh Public students are identified as economically disadvantaged by the state of Pennsylvania. Fogarty said families in low-income neighborhoods would be willing to send their children to other areas if their children could go to a better school. “The city needs to work together to design a system that can create this change,” Fogarty said.

One of the four main challenges the report identifies is the segregation of students from different economic backgrounds. Neighborhoods with high low-income populations have schools where nearly all of its students live in poverty. And these schools serve almost entirely Black children. 

A+ Schools Executive Director James Fogarty speaks during a Q&A session in 2020. (Screenshot)

While some schools with high low-income populations are receiving above-average resources, others are receiving less. For example, Perry High School received the lowest per pupil funding in the district, a total of more than $800,000 less per year than the average district neighborhood high school. That’s enough to hire eight additional teachers. Perry receives less than district magnet high schools but more than the city’s charter high schools.

Schools with more low-income students faced an even bigger attendance challenge in 2020-2021. Although the percentage of students with chronic absences didn’t change much, the students who were chronically absent missed about twice as many days of school the first semester of 2020 compared to the first semester of 2019. 

The report identifies collaboration as a key driver for change across problems within the district. For example, Fogarty said, a collaboration with local government could help identify the impact of lead poisoning on learning or improve bus route efficiency around construction projects. Interim Superintendent Wayne Walters said during A+ press conference that the best collaborations would directly improve teaching and learning in classrooms.

“We need to work together. This burden isn’t on the district alone,” Fogarty said.

The report also identifies inequity in the city’s arts and gifted programming. Some schools have few art teachers, although Fogarty said this isn’t correlated to student poverty status. But the district’s gifted program continues to perpetuate racial inequality, as white students are more than six times as likely as Black students to be identified as gifted. The guidelines for inclusion into the city’s gifted programs are determined by state laws, Fogarty said, but those laws could be changed.

The drop in student enrollment is also contributing to a financial crunch at PPS. The district’s reserve funds have been depleted over the past five years and the main options to address the shortfall are unpopular: raising property taxes, closing schools, restructuring benefits and laying off staff.

*PublicSource receives funding from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Hillman Foundation, which also fund A+ Schools.

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 reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...