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Lack Of Stability A Factor In Pittsburgh's Lower-Than-Average Graduation Rates

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools students are graduating from high school at lower rates than the national average, according to state and national reports.

On Monday, the White House celebrated a new national high of 83.2 percent for the 2014-15 school year, far exceeding Pittsburgh Public Schools’self-reported state average of 70.44 percent.

Together, Pennsylvania high schools just cap the federal average at 85 percent. Numbers are based on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile reports and records from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

A+ Schools Executive Director James Fogarty said he wasn't surprised by Pittsburgh's sub-par place in the national scale.

Achievement, he said, tends to fall along economic lines.

Children of families in poverty or receiving some form of public assistance -- about 60 percent of all Pittsburgh high school students -- are more likely to struggle, he said.

Those correlations were strongest at Westinghouse Academy. The school's graduation rate in 2015 fell to 62.9 percent; its volume of students considered economically disadvantaged was 81 percent.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Students arrive for the first day of school at Westinghouse High School on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.

But Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 bucked Fogarty's theory.

Last year's Milliones seniors recorded the district's fourth highest graduation rate at 90 percent, despite boasting its second-highest number of students considered economically disadvantaged.

Fogarty also attributed Pittsburgh's low overall rates to leadership transience.

"We've had a lot of principal instability," Fogarty said. "Stabilizing the building is going to do nothing but help improve graduation rates as those building leaders get to know the students in their building and can help them move forward for the next four years."

Fogarty pointed to Pittsburgh Perry High School, which has had four principals in the past five years. Westinghouse and Pittsburgh Brashear also underwentmultiple leadership changes, he said.

Allegheny County high schools excluding PPS averaged a graduation rate of about 94 percent.

Most ranged between Brentwood Borough School District, which reported a 100 percent rate among 107 children, and Clairton's 2015 cohort that issued diplomas to 40 students, about 79 percent. 

Brentwood High School principal Jason Olexa said they were fortunate with the 2014-15 cohort, in that none of their students left the state, which could have affected their graduation rate. 

"There’s all kinds of situations and circumstances that comes into people’s lives," Olexa said. "We just kind of hit it off lucky." 

Of that graduating class, 92 percent went to post-high school training, with the majority (52 percent) attending a four-year college and the rest attending a two-year school or trade school. In Pittsburgh Public Schools, Fogarty said around 61 percent of students matriculate immediately to further education programs.

Wilkinsburg High School reported 27 students, less than half of their cohort, graduated in 2014-15. The school, facing a $1.2 million deficit, closed at the end of the 2016 school year. Many students had already transferred to charter schools or open-enrolled at Westinghouse Academy. 

The term "graduation rate" is also a moving target.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, since 2011, states have reported their graduation rates based on “the number of students who complete high school within four years divided by the number of students who entered high school four years earlier, and accounting for student transfers in and out of school.”

In Pennsylvania, this is called the “cohort graduation rate,” with “cohort” defined as all the students who enter 9th grade in a given year. As students transfer out, they factor against a school's graduation rate. As they transfer in, they count for the rate.

It's an imperfect system, Fogarty said.

Cohort success also correlates to more broad policy changes happening outside the classroom.

Jim Buckheit, Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators executive director, said the students at the center of the recent graduation rates entered high school at a transitional time.

"(2011) was the year that schools across Pennsylvania saw a nearly $1 billion reduction in funding from the state and federal government," Buckheit said. "So the consequences of that definitely had an impact on the services and supports and programs that helped these students."

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Education sent an email to school leaders around the state saying officials would temporarily disable online access to school performance profiles for a “review of data integrity.”

In a statement, the PDE said they were checking on an accuracy issue within the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System. PVAASanalyzes statistics from data, specifically end-of-year Keystone test results reported by schools, and helps to formulate achievement and growth scores. 

School officials have been invited to meetings this week with Education Secretary Pedro Rivera to discuss the data.

According to the statement, it's unlikely many districts will see changes to their performance profiles. Graduation rates shouldn't be affected.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.