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Unfinished learning and segregated Pittsburgh schools: takeaways from A+ Schools report


The local education advocacy group A+ Schools highlighted persistent inequities within the city’s public schools in its annual report to the community on Monday.

“We've got to do something different in terms of how we've structured and designed our system of education,” said the group's executive director James Fogarty. “The pandemic showed that the inequities that we had based on economics, race and our community were not just exacerbated, but they just were laid bare. And so that meant that when this pandemic started, those who had access to high-speed internet or technology were able to access learning resources that others weren't.”

Due to the pandemic, the report did not include standardized testing data typically used to compare schools.

The report was sent to all households with school-aged children and includes demographic information for each city school and charter school. Typically, the report includes suspension, chronic absenteeism and testing data for each school, but that isn’t available for most schools this year.

When the state shut down in-person learning in March 2020, Pittsburgh Public Schools halted all learning for two months, while other districts transitioned to remote learning within a week. PPS used federal COVID-19 relief dollars to buy computers for all students, but according to the report, the rollout was slow and families reported multiple issues from slow internet to confusing learning platforms that prevented their students from getting into their classes.

As the A+ report notes, when surrounding districts moved to a hybrid model of learning, PPS remained virtual for a full year. In response, local community groups and agencies came together to fund “learning hubs” where students could attend their virtual classes with in-person adult supervision.

“Learning hubs became lifelines for families of essential workers, providing in-person learning support that children needed. But these hubs were only able to serve a little over 900 PPS students out of a total of more than 20,000,” the report states.

Furthermore, the report says, the model of learning that districts offered greatly impacted enrollment. PPS has consistently lost students for a decade, but from the 2019-20 to 2020-21 school years, the district lost about 830 students — a 4% drop. In four years, the district’s overall enrollment has declined 8.6%.

The district must report its 2021-22 enrollment data to the state on Nov. 16.

Interim PPS superintendent Wayne Walters said Monday during a press conference that his team would take a deep look at the issues highlighted in the report.

Segregated schools

While segregation has been illegal in Pennsylvania schools since 1881, the report states that “segregated schools have been part of life for Pittsburgh’s children since the inception of public education.”

In Pittsburgh, Black students are more likely than white students to attend PPS schools with high concentrations of poverty, and last year 22% of Black students in the district attended schools with a student population that was 90% Black or brown.

Research shows, as the report notes, that this kind of school segregation continues to create unequal education opportunities, “Including access to rigorous courses and curricula, higher concentrations of novice or chronically absent teachers, and insufficient resources to meet the needs of students who come from neighborhoods with lower access to high quality early childhood education,” the report states.

Fogarty argues that the district can fix the segregation issue with improved design. While most Black and brown students attend neighborhood high schools, most white high school students attend selective magnet schools.

He wants the district to allocate money to each school based on student need. Right now, each school principal gets about the same amount of funding regardless of academic outcomes.

“I'm asking the board to take a look at how they fund schools and to change the methodology … the way they do it now is blind to the financial implications,” he said.

For example, the district spends less money per pupil at Perry High School — where 80% of students are considered economically disadvantaged by the state and more than 30% have a disability — than at magnet schools like Obama 6-12 in East Liberty, where 53% of students are economically disadvantaged, and 13% have a disability.

“So you have well-resourced children getting more from a resource standpoint from our school system and less-resourced children getting less,” Fogarty said. “We can change that.”

Some issues highlighted are not district problems but city and community problems, like lack of affordable housing, water issues like lead, and lack of high quality child care in highest poverty areas.

This issue of school segregation is especially imporant as the school board will have to soon consider the district’s infrastructure. Last year, former superintendent Anthony Hamlet proposed closing and consolidating schools as the board faced a budget deficit. The board shot those proposals down.

Now, as the district faces a $39.5 million budget shortfall, that conversation will likely come up again. The board must approve a budget in December.

“We can’t keep doing what we’re doing,” Fogarty said. “We’ve got to think about how do we design a school system that intentionally integrates that also honors the agency of families and students to have what they want in schools.”

Unfinished learning
While A+ didn’t have recent test data, it projected that based on 2019 data, more than half of students are likely to need help getting on track to read fluently at grade level. And nearly three-fifths of students are likely to need help getting on track to understanding math at their grade level.

“While these numbers can feel overwhelming, they represent children in our neighborhoods and communities who need our help,” the report states. “Working together with our families, schools, teachers and out-of-school time programs, we can weave a powerful safety net for students who are falling behind.”

The report also highlighted schools and programs that have been successful in spite of a difficult school year. Those stories touch on how lives changed when school buildings closed.