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After three decades, Pittsburgh school district renews agreement to work toward racial justice

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

On the 30th anniversary of a complaint filed against Pittsburgh Public Schools for failing to provide a quality education for African American students, the school board approved another iteration of the district’s plan to improve achievement and reduce disparities. More than half of the district’s students are African American.

The memorandum of understanding was approved 8-1, with member Kevin Carter voting against the plan.

In 1992, the Advocates for African American Students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools filed a complaint with the state’s human relations commission citing inequities and lack of opportunities for Black students and charging that the district violated the state’s human relations act.

The advocates cited excessive suspensions and harsh discipline for Black students. They also pointed to the exclusion of Black students from special programs because of a large academic achievement gap.

Since then, some progress has been made, but the work is slow and exhausting. So much so that those still involved hadn’t realized until recently that it had been three decades since they made the complaint.

“When I first got into [this work], and I think I can speak for everybody, nobody thought we’d be in it this long,” said Wanda Henderson, one of the complainants and now chair of the district’s Equity Advisory Panel. “We were young, energetic parents. We didn’t really understand how the system did not work.”

Some of the members of the Pittsburgh Public Schools Equity Advisory Panel.
Pittsburgh Public Schools
Some of the members of the Pittsburgh Public Schools Equity Advisory Panel.

Fourteen years after the advocates filed a complaint, a conciliation agreement was made in 2006 with 94 action steps addressing how the district could reduce the achievement gap, provide instructional support and create equity for Black students. One outcome of the conciliation agreement was the formation of the Equity Advisory Panel, a group charged with monitoring, advising and reporting on the district’s progress.

Another outcome of the agreement was the creation of the district’s equity office. Angela Allie, executive director of equity, told the board during a presentation this month on the new memorandum that equity is a shared responsibility of all connected to the district.

“One of the more traditional approaches to our work, particularly equity work, is to focus on fixing students, which would have us paying attention to the achievement gap, student behavior and student interventions,” Allie said. “But a … true equity approach when we’re seeking systemic racial equity is to focus on fixing the systems.”

Allie told the board that she’s working to shift the focus to talking about opportunity gaps and culturally responsive systems.

The newly approved agreement is the fourth between the district and the advocates. The agreement was extended in 2012, 2014 and 2020.

While there has been evidence that the district has attempted to close the achievement gap between Black and white students, data does not show substantial progress, according to a release from the advocates.

“The next five years will be challenging, but they can also be rewarding,” a release from the advocates states. “The Pittsburgh Board of Education and Pittsburgh Community must commit to do the necessary work so that we do not suffocate the next generation of students with the horrific racial disparities that smothered the dreams and aspirations of their predecessors.”

New agreement

For Henderson, the most important addition to the new memorandum is an independent equity audit. The district must now retain an independent auditor to conduct the first audit of its system of education for its African American students.

The auditors will be charged with deciding the metrics that will be used to measure performance and issue recommendations. The district will then report the outcomes of those metrics annually.

Henderson said the audit will help the district revisit policies and procedures to see what has worked and what hasn’t. She said that some board members and administrators questioned the need for an audit.

“Some of them assumed that the audit was just to show how bad the data was,” Henderson said. “But we were saying the data already showed bad things. We know we have the data. We need someone to come in and see how we can change and what we’re doing to be more effective for our students.”

Allie said that the audit would allow the district to closely monitor data and make real-time decisions.

Lifetime commitment

Henderson said she had no idea when she started this that it would be a lifetime commitment as she said it has ended up being.

“But the more involved you are, and the more you learn, the more you realized how necessary it is for us to stay involved. Even though we are tired, even though we are exhausted, it’s necessary,” she said.

Now as the country's history is debated and parents and other groups aggressively push back on the idea of schools teaching “critical race theory,” Henderson said it’s now more important than ever that the district commits to this work.

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“Pittsburgh Public schools, when it was first started, it was never designed for Black students in the beginning, so the struggle just continues one generation after another generation,” she said. “So this is lifelong, and we’re going to have to find some younger people to carry the torch.”

When it comes to critical race theory, an often collegiate-level academic tool used to analyze how racism manifests in policy, Henderson said the debates using the term as a catch-all for schools teaching about systemic racism has slowed progress.

“You make two steps forward and then you get pressure to go back five [steps],” she said. “So you have to stand your ground and just go step by step. Because it’s about education but the bigger issue is opportunity. If you don’t have what you need by the time you get out of high school, you have no opportunity to succeed for you or your family.”

The new agreement is five years and Allie with the district told the board this month that if need be, the district will reevaluate the work every five years.

“We owe it to the generations of students who have matriculated through the district across 30 years and want to see equal outcomes be a reality in this district,” Allie said. “I would just offer up that as long as we are operating in a system where systemic inequity is a reality … we have a responsibility, a moral and ethical responsibility to do our due diligence and double down on our efforts.”