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Despite Some Victories, Racial Disparities Persist Among Pittsburgh Public Schools Students

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
A Plus Schools Executive Director James Fogarty points to a slide showing his nonprofit's priorities for the Pittsburgh Public School District at a press conference Monday.

In its latest annual report sent to 30,000 homes in the city, A+ Schools is drawing attention to persistent disparities within Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The group’s executive director, James Fogarty, described Pittsburgh as a city of two school districts. Fogarty said there are schools with high rates of achievement and low suspensions, and others that continue to have failing test scores, high teacher turnover and chronic absenteeism, despite similar demographics.

“Let us not be disheartened by the data we might see in terms of gaps in achievement,” he said. “Because we know there are schools that are getting the job done with black and white and Latino and Asian students in this district. And they’re getting it done at a high level and they’re getting it done in all neighborhoods across this city.”

Fogarty gave the examples of last year’s third grade reading scores at Allegheny Traditional K-5, a magnet school in the North Side, and Langley K-8 in Sheraden, two schools with similar demographics but different outcomes.

Seventy-two percent of Allegheny Traditional’s black third grade students were reading at grade level last year while only 17 percent of Langley’s black students met the mark.

Fogarty noted Allegheny Traditional has had consistent and stable leadership, which could be part of the difference. He challenged school and community leaders to unpack the data comparing schools, “in a meaningful way,” looking at grade-to-grade comparisons.  

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said reducing the racial achievement gap has to be a team effort and not just the work of the district’s staff. He noted that the gap between black and white students begins at birth and said part of the issue is access to high-quality pre-K.

Hamlet said the district would use the report as a tool in evaluating its progress.

The report did note some victories. The district’s graduation rate increased by 10 percentage points over last year, from 70 to 80 percent. Third grade reading scores, which are often used as a benchmark for achievement, increased by 8 points overall and 12 points for black students. Now, 55 percent of third graders are reading at grade level.

The report highlighted the decrease in enrollment in the public school district, down 2,437 students since the 2013-14 school year.

White students accounted for 67 percent of the students enrolled in the district’s gifted program while 18.5 percent of black students were enrolled in that program. A disparity also persists among students who qualify for the full Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program, which is offered to students with a minimum 2.5 GPA. Last year, 83 percent of white students were eligible, compared to 51 percent of black students.

Incoming school board member Sala Udin spoke at the unveiling of the report advising advocates and educators to continue to look at the data and, “drill down to individual schools.”

“We have to focus a floodlight on those students,” he said. “Black children are not surviving in the public school system.”