As PPS contends with a difficult budget season, PublicSource explores the balance of resources and its effects on students’ futures.
Nathan Holmes from Westinghouse Academy is passionate about his high school marching band. It gives the 10th-grader a sense of belonging and a close-knit circle of friends he can trust and depend on.
However, the band has been struggling ever since it started. Until a few years ago, the band did not have a full-time teacher because of budget constraints. The quality of the instruments is subpar and there aren’t enough students to support a full-fledged marching band. Holmes is the only quad drummer and he wishes there were more people with him.
Westinghouse 6-12 is one of the under-resourced schools in the Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] district. The per-pupil funding at Westinghouse was about $25,280 in 2021, the lowest in the school system. As PPS looks toward a growing budget deficit next year, the resource gap between Westinghouse and other high schools will be part of a difficult financial equation.
Roughly three miles away from Westinghouse Academy in Homewood is Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill. Allderdice is the largest school in the district with nearly 1,400 students. It is a predominately white school and 40% of its students are economically disadvantaged.
In comparison, Westinghouse has about 660 students, of whom 90% are Black and more than 83% are economically disadvantaged.
Districtwide, PPS enrolled about 18,650 students in 2022-23. 50.7% of students were Black and 64.5% were economically disadvantaged.
In PPS, students are assigned to schools based on the neighborhood they live in unless they are admitted to a magnet school or program. Segregation in the district’s schools mirrors segregation in the neighborhoods they serve.
PublicSource analyzed resources at Westinghouse and Allderdice to assess the disparities between two schools close in distance but far apart in student demographics.
Advanced class options differ vastly
At Westinghouse, Holmes is enrolled in two Advanced Placement [AP] classes. He feels, though, that his choices were limited and the classes are not as rigorous as they should be. Eleventh grader Mekaiah Gee is enrolled in all of the AP classes that the school offers for her grade level. However, some of her classes are poorly attended, limiting student engagement.
Westinghouse currently offers eight AP classes. These courses, developed by the nonprofit College Board, offer college-level curriculum and examinations. If students score well on the tests, they can earn college credits.
Allderdice offers 28 AP courses — the highest in the district.
Sean Russell Jr., a 2022 Westinghouse graduate, said the limited offering of advanced classes fails to challenge students, and the district doesn't much emphasize student participation at Westinghouse. Rather than expecting access to AP courses, “it's almost like a privilege to get these college credits,” he said.
In an email response, district spokesperson Ebony Pugh said AP offerings at Westinghouse grew from two to eight classes over the last five years. The school also increased the number of college and high school classes offered by the University of Pittsburgh. This year, Westinghouse will launch a middle school Bulldogs Academy and some teacher-led clubs for academic enrichment, she added.
Allyce Pinchback-Johnson of the advocacy group Black Women for a Better Education said the disparity seen in AP class offerings is founded in the district’s feeder pattern and racial segregation in elementary and middle schools.
“What opportunities do they have to build a strong foundation by the time they get to high school? … Because I think it's an unacceptable thing to say that students just aren't interested” in rigorous classes, said Pinchback-Johnson.
Sean Means, a sociology teacher at Westinghouse, attributes the disparities in educational offerings to low enrollment in neighborhood schools.
“It's hard to offer more AP courses if you don't have but a few hundred students,” Means said.
PPS, which has enough building capacity for an additional 19,000 students, continues seeing an enrollment decline in all of its high schools.
Disparities start with the gifted-to-AP pipeline
Disparities in AP class enrollment also play out within schools. Results from the district’s 2023 Racial Equity Audit Report showed that 78% of students eligible for college credits through AP exams were white and 6% were Black. A staff survey response mentioned that Black students were “purposely overlooked” from being referred to the gifted program or placed in AP classes.
Pavel Marin, a senior at Allderdice and a member of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council at PPS, said he thinks the district’s largest equity issue lies in the AP and Centers for Advanced Study [CAS] high school classes. He added that many CAS and AP classes do not have Black students and the district should take extra measures to improve diversity in classrooms.
Allderdice senior Jamie Coles said the pipeline from the gifted or the CAS program to AP classes acts as a barrier for students who are not enrolled in the gifted program. He said most students from CAS go straight to AP classes but students in regular programs rarely take them because they don’t get enough support in the application process.
Pinchback-Johnson said PPS should rethink its gifted education model or implement universal screening for gifted students in elementary school so all students get an opportunity to be enrolled in advanced classes. Currently, the onus is on parents to opt in their child for consideration.
The district’s gifted program has been criticized for perpetuating racial inequities. According to a 2022 report by advocacy group A+ Schools, only 2% of Black students were identified as gifted, compared to 16% of white students. PPS has a majority Black student population, most of whom attend neighborhood schools.
“To me, it's just as a form of segregation, like, I think my child deserves to go to this special school, where we do project-based learning once a week, and the rest of the kids have to sit behind because they're not good enough,” Pinchback-Johnson said.
Students want better infrastructure, more staffing
When Gee walks into Pittsburgh Obama 6-12, where her younger brother attends middle school, she notices how different the building looks from Westinghouse.
The students have a big lounge space, the stairwells are not cracked, and the school seems to have functioning air conditioning. At Allderdice, students have a Writing Center in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University where they can get writing help or conduct research for their AP Research class.
At Westinghouse, Holmes said, the air conditioning system does not work in all classrooms. Students cannot use the school swimming pool because its heating system has not been fixed, making the water ice cold. Pugh did not respond to inquiries about the state of the school’s cooling and heating systems.
Antawn James, another 2022 Westinghouse graduate, said he would have liked to see more after-school programs or student clubs in the school. While the school puts a strong emphasis on sports, it does not offer other recreational activities such as a school newspaper or arts clubs, he said.
Students like Holmes and Gee feel a lot of their school’s issues stem from insufficient staffing.
Westinghouse has a higher concentration of students with Individualized Education Plans [IEPs] and special needs. 30% of students have IEPs. At Allderdice and Obama, the rates have, in recent years, been around 12% and 13% respectively.
Gee said she feels the school’s social workers and counselors for her class are not always accessible and she does not have enough mental health resources. She added if students have behavior issues, they are less likely to be recommended for advanced classes.
Holmes said Westinghouse has a shortage of science teachers; his current chemistry teacher also has to teach forensic science. The school did not have a full-time Spanish teacher when classes started this year. Russell Jr. recalled his sister’s middle school class did not have a full-time science teacher for an entire year because teachers kept quitting.
Westinghouse is not facing a shortage of science teachers but could use another biology teacher to reduce class size, Pugh said. The school has a larger complement of counselors and social workers for its size and provides in-house mental health services through the Community Empowerment Association, she added.
Westinghouse teachers, on average, have an experience of nine years teaching in the school. At Allderdice and Obama, teachers have an average teaching experience of 12 and 14 years respectively.
Marin said Allderdice should have more social workers and counselors, but does not face a staffing shortage in teaching positions. “Last year, there were three teachers that were transferred to other schools because they were overstaffed,” he said.
Allderdice Principal James McCoy said the school had to lose a few teachers last year based on their projected enrollment.
“The average teacher salary with benefits has gone up and up over the years, which just makes it harder to sometimes keep the same amount of staff even if you have the similar amount of students,” he said.
Westinghouse Principal Stephan Serada said he prioritizes having three counselors and social workers because of the high needs among students. As a result, sometimes situations arise when the school needs extra teachers to lighten the load but the budgets don’t allow for additional staffing, he added.
Community partnerships offer hope
PPS School Board member Kevin Carter said the district should ensure high-quality education programs across all geographical regions in the city to avoid students being bussed around, disproportionately affecting enrollment in smaller schools.
Otherwise, the uneven education offerings create “stigma” that some schools have high-quality academic programs “and schools like Perry, University Prep, Westinghouse don't have these programs available for students,” he said. “The issue is that we continuously do the same thing over and over again, very status quo, very lethargic.”
Coles said the district should improve outreach and communication in elementary and middle schools to make students more aware of the Career and Technical Education programs and academic offerings in neighborhood schools.
“It's such a disservice that we only see some of these schools like fighting schools or schools just for football when they have such rich programs that actually help people,” he said.
Holmes said he would like to see more options in advanced classes and creativity in teaching methods so classes are more engaging for all students. Even when he took an English CAS class, he was still learning the same things as other students in regular English classes, he added.
Students like Russell Jr. and James found a stimulating learning environment through community partnerships such as the Justice Scholars Institute [JSI]. The program is run in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh at Westinghouse, Perry and Milliones to offer rigorous college-level experiences to those high school students who might not have that exposure.
Gee is on track to get involved with JSI in her senior year. Despite seeing a lack of certain resources, she said, coming to Westinghouse felt good because, for the first time, she was surrounded by people who looked like her.
“When you go in, you recognize everybody. They don't always say hi, but you know who they are,” she said. “It's like a big community… like a big family at that school.”
Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by James Bell.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism helped to fund this project.
Editor's note (10/4/23): Data was updated to reflect newly available information on Individual Education Plans.
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.
Know more than you did before? Support this work with a MATCHED gift!
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.