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How School Choice Impacts Diversity At Pittsburgh Schools

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
The exterior of Minadeo Elementary School in Squirrel Hill.

Marquita Brown is the mother of a fifth grader at Minadeo Elementary in Squirrel Hill, and is also on the board of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization. She said her daughter is happy, outgoing, and is succeeding there.

“She likes it, she’s a straight-A student," Brown said. "She’s gifted. She has had no issues with parents or teachers."

But she said it is strange how, like hers, three-quarters of children there are black, given that most kids eligible to attend are white.

Map by Zach Goldstein*

One clue as to why this difference exists is the school’s capture rate, which was 23 percent during the 2016-17 school year. A school’s capture rate is the percentage of kids in a school’s attendance zone who actually attend their neighborhood public school. In the case of Minadeo and other schools with low capture rates, most students assigned to the school go to private, magnet or charter schools, or are home-schooled. A 90.5 WESA analysis of school district data found that schools with a higher percentage of black students tend to have a lower capture rate.

The orange best-fit line shows the negative correlation between African American percentage and capture rate at Pittsburgh Public Schools. Hover over a dot to see the exact percentages for a school.

Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who studies school segregation, said that this association is not unique to Pittsburgh, and that white parents tend to avoid schools serving large proportions of minority students.

Owens said research shows this remains true even after accounting for things like test scores and funding.

“I do think that's evidence that there's some sort of explicitly racial preferences going on there,” she said.

Students at Minadeo perform about the same as the district average academically.

Some white parents are going against the trend. This includes the president of Minadeo’s Parent Teacher Organization, Jody Handley. Handley said she simply wanted her kid to attend a school within walking distance of her home. She said she also liked that Minadeo has a diverse student population.

Ann Owens said integration has all kinds of positive impacts on kids’ lives. White students who attend integrated schools are better prepared to enter an increasingly diverse workplace. Students of color are more likely to graduate high school and less likely to live in poverty. And that can have a lasting impact for generations to come.

But Handley said she found other parents were often surprised at her decision, and some even assumed that the only reason for sending her kid to Minadeo was because she lost the lottery needed to get into a magnet school in Pittsburgh.

“In fact it was the exact opposite. We didn’t apply to anything else. We sent our kids to Minadeo because it was the most logical choice for us,” she said.

Key James’ daughter also started at Minadeo, but ended up switching to the Environmental Charter School in Regent Square. James said the Environmental Charter School did a better job of managing behavioral issues in the classroom, in part because of a lower student-to-teacher ratio.

In retrospect, James admits she hopped on the bandwagon with a group of parents sending their kids to the charter school because of the problems they saw at Minadeo. This made both schools more racially segregated and James’ black daughter became part of a small minority at the charter school.

She said that her family ultimately decided to leave the charter school because of the lack of diversity there.

"We struggled ... a lot with her identity, with her sense of identity and where she belonged," Key said. "You know, the friends that she made because it was a very different demographic.”

James sent her daughter back to Minadeo for the next school year, and said it was like coming home.

The yellow line is where a school would be if every child in the attendance zone went to it. Nearly all dots are below and to the right of the line. That means the populations of kids under 18 in the feeder patterns are whiter than the populations of the neighborhood schools. Hover over a dot to see the exact percentages for a school.

Like James, most parents just want to do what's best for their children, but good intentions can hold back progress on achieving diversity.

"[Parents] pick the school that they think is best for their kids, which is totally understandable, but that often does not result in racial integration," Owens said.

Check out the middle and high school feeder pattern maps here.

In the sixth part of our "Dividing Lines" series, Sarah Boden looks at what happens to a neighborhood when a school closes. Find more at wesa.fm/dividinglines.

*This map was created using data obtained from the U.S. Department of Education and may have slight differences from the current PPS school assignments. The district’s online form is still the definitive way to determine which school a particular address is assigned to.