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Few Alarms Sounded Over Schools In Discussion of 'Educational Emergency'

Anthony Hamlet
90.5 WESA
Once students "get to us in kindergarten, we’re playing catch-up," Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Anthony Hamlet told City Council this week. "It’s difficult and tough to play catch up.”

It took nearly six months after Pittsburgh City Council members Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle sought to declare “a state of Educational Emergency” for city officials to hear from school district leaders. And by the end of school administrators’ nearly two-hour-long discussion with council on Wednesday, there appeared to be consensus that, while there might be an educational emergency, the schools themselves weren't doing too badly.

“Our system is perfectly designed to get the results that we are currently getting,” said Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, as he cited longstanding inequalities as a key reason for persistent disparities in academic achievement between Black students and white students. “Some may think the system is just Pittsburgh Public Schools, but the system is the entire city of Pittsburgh and its ecosystem.”

“The achievement gap begins at birth,” he added later, noting that the first four years of a child’s life are critical for development. “Once they get to us in kindergarten, we’re playing catch-up. It’s difficult and tough to play catch up.”

The district is exploring options for addressing that issue on its own, and Hamlet was joined by school board President Sylvia Wilson and a handful of top administrators to lay out a vision. Details were hazy at times, but officials cited a proposal to establish a school near Northview Heights for children from birth through second grade as an example. Still, Hamlet urged that other local players — including foundations and private-sector players — be recruited to aid in early childhood education efforts.

City officials seemed willing to try. Councilor Ricky Burgess, who chaired the discussion and who was a driving force behind the emergency declaration, agreed that the problems, and the solutions, were bigger than the district.

“Responsibility for education our children belongs to everybody,” he said. “We have to start off by being truthful that our kids are failing.” He noted that they were “multiple grade levels behind” white children, but said he supported Hamlet's administration.

“[Kids] are not high-performing because the schools are high-performing," he said. "They’re high performing because their parents are high-performing. They’re high-performing because their communities are high-performing. They have additional academic exposure and instruction beyond the school.”

Indeed, there was little discussion Wednesday about conditions within the schools themselves. There was no talk about how the district had handled the pandemic over the past school year — even though the emergency declaration Burgess had cosponsored pointedly noted that as of this past winter, “Pittsburgh is one of only three school districts in Allegheny County, out of 43 total school districts, that are still almost completely providing student instruction via remote learning.”

There was also little debate over other tough language in the resolution, like its recitation of statistics that white students were two to three times more likely to be proficient in math and reading skills. When councilors asked district officials if they could quantify the amount of learning loss that took place during the pandemic, schools data chief Ted Dwyer said the virus had disrupted standardized tests often used to gauge school progress, making it difficult to measure.

District officials repeatedly said they were open to various forms of support — including financial. In his prepared remarks, Hamlet revisited a longstanding district complaint that when the city of Pittsburgh was put under state financial oversight in 2004, legislators in Harrisburg funneled amounts of up to $20 million a year in wage-tax revenue from the district’s coffers to those of the city.

Hamlet said the district needed the money back, now that the city has “high revenues, it has a high fund balance. That is something that would definitely support and help with the things we need for our children, and our faculty and staff.”

Hamlet also cited another frequent target for public educators: reimbursements for charter schools. State law requires districts to pass along funding for each student in the district that attends a charter, to cover the costs of education.

“The charter school funding formula is not based on how much charters spend to educate students,” he said. “The formula is based on how much a sending district spends to educate students.” Simply adopting a fairer rate for online cyber-charter schools, he said, would produce $10.5 million in savings for the city schools.

Charter school officials angrily rejected that argument in their own public session with Council on Tuesday. Urban Academy CEO Chase Patterson called the funding argument “preposterous,” and said charters receive less than 75 cents for each dollar the host district receives per student.

“We’re educating the same kid,” he said. “If that’s the argument for the school district ... they’ve got to step their game up. To have had a 150-year head start and in most cases not be performing better than many of the charters on this call, they’ve got a real problem, and it's not keeping our 25 cents to the dollar.”

But there was little such rancor on Wednesday. “I take the position that the school board, the school is not the primary problem,” Burgess said at the conclusion of the discussion. “Even if the schools were perfect, the kids would still have problems.”

“I’m not against working to talk about what the schools can do,” he added. “But I think the problem we have is that we don’t have a process to engage the entire community collectively to try to educate these kids. … That’s what I am committing myself to do.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.