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Annual Report Highlights Persistent Gaps And Success Stories In Pittsburgh Public Schools

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Morrison Young, left, a City Charter High School student reflects on a report on learning outcomes in Pittsburgh public schools.

Academic achievement gaps are persistent in Pittsburgh Public Schools, according to an annual report released Monday by education advocacy group A+ Schools.

While the report has historically analyzed those trends, this year it highlighted six schools getting better results than the district as a whole.

Generally, enrollment is down in the city’s public school district, only about half of kids can read proficiently by third grade, 20 percent of middle schoolers are proficient in math and 79 percent of students graduate.

Executive Director James Fogarty said he was tired of telling the same disheartening story year after year, and instead looked for the bright spots.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit here, especially when we think about early literacy which is so critical to school success all the way through. We should really be looking at these examples and saying ‘let’s replicate’,” he said.

For example, while about 21 percent of Pittsburgh middle school students missed more than 10 percent of school days a year, Schiller 6-8 on the north side reduced that figure significantly by designating a staff member to reach out to parents.

In the report Schiller principal Paula Heinzman said they’re mindful of what parents are going through and her staff helps them find resources in order to keep their kids in school. In 2013, 36 percent of Schiller students were chronically absent. Last year that figure was down to 3 percent.

Chronic absenteeism has been and continues to be an issue for the district. Last year, 76 percent of Pittsburgh Perry 9-12 students missed more than 10 percent of school days.

PPS Chief Academic Officer Minika Jenkins said the needs of each school varies, and while best practices can be replicated, there are differences.

“The supports and the needs of schools are going to be drastically different,” she said. “Could we implement some of those measures? Absolutely. But will there be more that’s necessary … school to school? Absolutely.”

The report details academic outcomes, teacher effectiveness and chronic absenteeism for each school. It notes, though, that it shouldn’t be used as a substitute for parents and providers visiting schools when they make decisions about where their child should go to school.

“The data tells you a story of outcomes and achievement, it may not tell you all of the programs that exist in the school. It may not tell you the kinds of interests they’re trying to serve in the school,” Fogarty said. “Go and talk to the principal, go and talk to some of the teachers, get a sense of the building yourself. That’s sort of the ideal situation. If not, leverage the resources to make that decision.”

Jenkins said she hopes parents use the data as a way to intervene and make sure their local school is successful.

“Not to run away from it, but to rally behind the school and support your school and not just say ‘I’m going to go to this school over here because the data looks great’,” she said.

Another example of success noted in the report is City Charter High School’s overall graduation rate of 96 percent last year. Fifty-nine percent of the downtown school’s students are economically disadvantaged and 52 percent are black.

Morrison Young a student at City Charter High School said Monday that teacher engagement changed his learning experience. At his school teachers “loop” which means they teach a class for 9th through 12th grade and then start over with a new group of students.

“I gained a personal level bond with most of my teachers,” he said. “That has helped me take a step further in my education and be invested in bettering myself.”

Fogarty said PPS could replicate parts of the City Charter high school model where students each have laptops, there’s an emphasis on project-based learning and group teaching. The school also prioritizes academics over more typical aspects of a high school, such as sports, according to Fogarty.

“I know in this era where we’re divided around charter and district schools that we could learn from each other, that we can take lessons from charters and innovate in ways that help all students succeed,” he said.  

Fogarty reflected Monday that for too long advocates and educators in the city have thought with a deficit mindset.

“I’m encouraging you to think in an asset mindset,” he told a group gathered for the release of the report. “Think about the possibilities, look to the bright shining lights in our schools that are getting the job done by all students and to know that there’s a lot of work to be done.”

The report is mailed to 15,000 city households with children enrolled in Pittsburgh Public Schools.