Westinghouse Academy senior Andrea Edwards feels her school is more of a “playground” than a learning environment.
“It’s like [students] don’t really have that focus,” she said. “I feel like we are more so down there because we don’t have the resources.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] Westinghouse Academy, which enrolled about 660 students last year, has some of the lowest test scores in the district. In 2022-23, about 8% of students scored advanced or proficient in math and 29% scored the same in English in 11th grade. Districtwide, 25% of students scored advanced or proficient in math and 52% scored the same in English.
As PPS contends with a difficult budget season, PublicSource explores the balance of resources and its effects on students’ futures.
The school district spent about $30,300 per student in 2022, making its per-pupil expenditure one of the highest in the state. Philadelphia, the state’s largest school district, spent about $21,270 per pupil in 2022, and nearby districts like Woodland Hills and North Allegheny spent $24,095 and $21,450 respectively.
However, the district’s high investment per student does not reflect in student performance.
While some schools show test scores well ahead of statewide averages, students in schools with a majority of Black and low-income students are underperforming compared to their peers in other schools.
Edwards said many students in her school are unable to focus in the classroom because many face economic insecurity and feel unsafe living in Homewood. She added that students at Allderdice in Squirrel Hill or at Sci-Tech in Oakland do not face the same challenges.
“We know Homewood is more like a ‘hood,’” Edwards said. “So I feel like challenges students face are: Are we gonna get to school OK?”
PPS enrolled about 18,650 students in 2022-23; 65% were economically disadvantaged students and 51% were Black.
Perry High School, which enrolls about 400 students, has some of the lowest achievement rates in the district, with no student reaching advanced or proficient levels in math and science in 2021-2022. Other 6-12 and 9-12 schools termed as low-achieving by the state were Milliones 6-12, Obama 6-12, Westinghouse 6-12 and Brashear High School.
The state Department of Education defines low-achieving schools as those that ranked in the lowest 15% for the 2021-22 school year based on the combined math and English scores from the annual PSSA, PASA and Keystone assessments.
Twenty-four of 54 PPS schools were deemed low-achieving in the school year 2023-24.
Jala Olds-Pearson, chief academic officer at PPS, said the pandemic negatively impacted student performance across the district – not just in low-achieving schools – and the district is working on narrowing that gap.
Most low-achieving schools have a majority of economically disadvantaged and Black students. In Perry, Milliones and Westinghouse, about 30% of students have Individualized Education Programs [IEP] for special needs, some of the highest rates in the district.
Most schools across the district did not meet the state’s interim goal and performance standards for proficiency levels in standardized tests in 2023. The district is trying measures including tutoring and curriculum change in an effort to bridge gaps, but faces attendance challenges, low expectations, uneven staff experience and the separating effects of magnet schools.
Keeping children in schools leads to better outcomes
James Fogarty, executive director of advocacy group A+ Schools, said on top of common educational outcome determinants such as housing, health and economic disadvantage, the district is facing a serious issue of chronic absence.
In PPS, the overall rates of chronic absenteeism rose from 27% to 42% in 2021-22. Nearly half of the district’s high school students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10% or more of school days or two days a month for any reason.
Research indicates that chronic absence in schools negatively impacts students’ grades and test scores, and leads to an increase in high school drop-out rates. Studies show that students are seven times more likely to drop out of high school if they are chronically absent.
Allderdice and Westinghouse, 3 miles away, are worlds apart in AP classes, teacher experience, student disadvantage
“If you're not in the building, you're not learning,” said Kathi Elliott, CEO of the advocacy group Gwen’s Girls. “Then, obviously, your achievement and potential achievement will be minimal.” Elliott said the district needs to look at contributing factors to absenteeism and make use of community partners to reduce it.
At PPS, 6-12 and 9-12 schools saw a direct correlation between chronic absence and low test scores. The results are less clear at the elementary school level.
At Westinghouse, Edwards said, the school’s poor attendance rate is a more determining factor for students’ low achievement than the curriculum.
“I feel like students just don't want to be in school anymore,” she said.
PPS has taken multiple approaches to reducing student absenteeism. Carrie Woodard, director of school counselors, said the district has a Student Assistance Program that can identify barriers to attendance and provide help for students. PPS has also partnered with Everyday Labs to provide intervention support for students who are at risk of being chronically absent.
Districtwide, 58% of students improved attendance after receiving text nudges from Everyday Labs and 17% of nudged students were no longer considered chronically absent in 2022-23, according to a report by PPS and A+ Schools.
Amie White, chief of programs at A+ Schools, said Perry is working with organizations that offer project-based learning for students to create challenging classes and make students more excited to come to school.
Edwards said many students don’t want to attend school because they feel schools are not preparing them for life and they have other means to earn money without having a degree. Other students in her school have to stay at home and provide for the family.
“School is more so pushed to the back end of your mind because it's not more so a priority anyway,” Edwards said.
Hetal Dhagat, a senior attorney at the Education Law Center [ELC], said other factors such as unaddressed bullying and failure to provide special education support can keep students away from schools.
“It's really important for students to be able to attend school and feel like it's a safe place for them to go,” she said.
ELC, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm, emphasizes underlying systemic barriers such as racism and housing instability as the root of attendance issues.
Factors impacting test scores vary
While chronic absenteeism could be a major factor impacting student achievement, advocates believe it is not a standalone factor and the district needs to examine underlying systemic issues that disproportionately affect students in low-achieving PPS schools.
Fogarty said selective magnet schools enroll students who are performing well on standardized tests because students are required to score at least basic to get into those schools.
All magnet programs except CAPA 6-12 require students to have at least a 2.5 GPA and a score of at least basic in their most recent Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exam in English language arts.
Edwards feels many students in her school don’t perform well because of low expectations set for them. She added that Westinghouse receives fewer resources than other schools because no one has high expectations from the students.
District spokesperson Ebony Pugh said PPS is working on a strategic plan with community partners to address some of those challenges that affect student outcomes.
“We've heard that there is a need for creating a space where there's this feeling of hope,” said Pugh, adding that the district will share an update in a board meeting next month.
Westinghouse is one of the under-resourced schools in PPS, receiving one of the lowest per-pupil funding rates in the district and offering the fewest advanced classes in high school.
“I feel like because they have that low expectation, they don't think that students at Westinghouse are even capable of just going out and achieving more for themselves in life,” Edwards said.
Elliott emphasized the experience of teaching staff and stable leadership that contribute to a student’s performance.
Schools like Westinghouse and Perry have seen a high leadership turnover, with each churning through three school principals in the last five years. Schools including UPrep Milliones have teachers with far less experience than the average for the district.
Obama senior Korey Lowe said the school did not help students to prepare for Keystone Exams.
“I feel like people just went into it and then failed the first time they began because it became something they just wanted to get over with,” said Lowe.
Lowe said PPS should offer more support for students to prepare for standardized tests.
Pugh said while the district does not offer classes geared toward standardized tests, it started administering Classroom Diagnostic Tools exams, thrice a year, in 2022, to monitor student progress in Keystone and PSSA exams, determine academic needs and provide support where needed.
New curriculum, historical barriers
This year, PPS started providing virtual one-on-one tutoring support through Tutor.com for students who could not attend in-person lessons or after-school programs.
Fogarty said the district needs to create a system through which teachers can leverage the tutoring service in a way that motivates students who are behind to reduce learning gaps.
Olds-Pearson said PPS is working on providing targeted professional training for teachers and creating opportunities for accelerated learning for students and parent engagement in all schools.
In August, PPS adopted a new K-5 curriculum based on research called the “science of reading.” The curriculum puts weight on foundational skills such as decoding, and linguistic and reading comprehension.
“We can't use antiquated strategies for current-day challenges, especially when we have the research that clearly shows that there's certain shifts that we needed to make, such as the science of reading for K-5,” said Olds-Pearson.
Elliott said apart from changes to curriculums, the district should collaborate more closely with community partners and parents to address the social and cultural barriers for students in historically underperforming schools.
“A lot of times, we look at the interventions, more so for the student — what could the student do differently? But we have a system that inherently shows this racial disproportionality,” said Elliott. “It's more than just the child's achievement. There are systemic things that have to be addressed.”
Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Elizabeth Szeto.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism helped to fund this project.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.