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The Deliberate And Unintended Consequences Of Segregated Charter Schools

Virginia Alvino Young
90.5 WESA
Urban Academy student Rylee McKinley leads her first grade class in its morning reading exercise.

Every day at Urban Academy Charter School in Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood begins with students, teachers, support staff and administrators gathered in the cafeteria.

Mornings start with brief presentations on black history, followed by song: “I Believe I Can Fly,” the black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and once in a while, a little Bruno Mars.

Since its founding in 1998 by the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, the school has grown to 220 students in Kindergarten through fifth grade. Angelique Drakeford, became principal this year, said they plan to expand.

"When they open up the history book for the first time, the first thing they see is slavery; that’s not accurate. We need to go back further so they understand where they came from,” Drakeford said. “We want to make sure we’re teaching them with cultural relevance here."

About half the school’s staff is white, but 100 percent of its students identify as African American, Urban Academy CEO Chase Patterson said.

Charter schools tend to be more racially segregated than other public schools both in Pennsylvania and nationwide, according a study cited in the Center for Rural Pennsylvania's 2014 charter school legislative report.

Urban Academy's black student population is far higher than Pittsburgh Public School’s average of 53 percent. All but one of Pittsburgh’s authorized charter schools, the Environmental Charter School, have a majority of black students.

According to the A+ Schools annual community report, Urban Academy students have closed the reading gap and outperform other schools in the district with similar demographics.

Patterson said the racial makeup at Urban Academy allows teachers to meet black students where they are in the learning process.

“But let’s be honest,” Patterson said. “This school was founded to combat systemic oppression and racism. When you think about the fact that black people in this country are mostly descendants of oppressed people, indentured servants or slaves, there is a mental component that comes with that.

"That is generational," he said. "That is passed on.”

Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Angelique Drakeford became principal of Urban Academy this year.

Saleem Gabrill, executive director of The Pittsburgh Promise, said the world is a diverse place, so experiencing racial diversity in school is important, especially for white students.

Pittsburgh is segregated, he said. Students might not get many opportunities to interact with children who look different than they do.

He said that’s less common for black families, “because their kids are certainly well-adept at having to function in a culture that is predominately not theirs.”

But there’s something Gabrill worries about more.

“I’m afraid that the segregation we’re seeing today segregates us further beyond just racial and ethnic segregation to also economic and educational segregation,” he said.

He said in Pittsburgh, race and economics are inseparable, and schools need economic diversity. Engaged parents, who are often more educated and wealthy themselves, tend to be associated with the highest performing schools, Gabrill said. Disadvantaged kids become further disadvantaged.

“Why are there so many barriers for economic prosperity in our black communities in Pittsburgh?" he said. "There are systemic issues that are deeply ingrained, and systems don’t like to change once they are established. And when they do change, they change ever so slowly and they change at the margins first."

Teacher Meghan Sullivan said she’s found another benefit to the demographics of her Urban Academy classroom.

“Getting this homogenous group, I think it’s made having culturally focused conversations more beneficial, because I can focus on them,” she said. “When you’re in a heterogeneous group, you’re tiptoeing a little bit, like you feel like I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or talk too much about this or that. But here they bring up the conversations, and we’re able to pull it into social studies.”

Patterson said Urban Academy would welcome any student who wanted to attend.