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Racial equity audit challenges Pittsburgh schools to further address disparities in student outcomes

Playground at a North Side elementary school.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Authors of a new Pittsburgh Public Schools racial equity audit are urging the district to address significant racial gaps in suspension rates, as well as suspension lengths.

The report, presented to school board members Tuesday night, found that Black students who received suspensions spent approximately 6.46 days suspended, on average, compared to 4.72 days for their non-Black peers.

According to the team of consultants contracted to independently conduct the audit, the majority-Black campuses in the district had a suspension rate 5 times greater than majority-white schools.

“We recommend really looking at school-specific policies and the implementation of the district policies, because we found that there were differences depending on the school,” said Krystal O’Leary, one of the report’s authors.

O’Leary approved of the district’s existing discipline policies, but said how they are implemented varies greatly across schools.

The report is part of a decades-long effort to improve outcomes for the district’s Black students, who make up approximately 50% of the total student population. Parents with Advocates for African American Students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools first brought a racial discrimination complaint against the district to the state in 1992, citing excessive suspensions, harsh discipline and exclusion from certain special programs, among other issues.

Now, more than 30 years later, PPS is still working to deliver on its promise to correct charges of unlawful discrimination found through an investigation by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The audit is the result of a 2022 agreement between PPS and the agency that required it to retain an independent equity auditor.

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The district awarded that contract to MGT Inc. — a consulting firm headquartered in Tampa, Fla. — and tasked them with providing school administrators recommendations to help close achievement gaps and address disparities in discipline.

The contract for the equity audit was valued at $153,000, according to a proposal MGT submitted to the district earlier this year. In compiling the report, the firm led focus groups with and surveyed parents, students and staff.

District 2 director Devon Taliaferro said she is hopeful that this latest round of recommendations will lead to change, though that depends on whether administrators execute them effectively.

“We have these briefings and then we talk a little bit about what we might do, but then we don't do a great job at execution and getting to addressing those true inequities that exist in our district,” Taliaferro said.

Despite some progress in recent years, Black students remain the lowest-performing racial group in the district, according to the audit, while Asian and white students perform significantly higher than their peers. Black students in the district, the report found, had an average GPA of 2.23, compared to 2.99 among their white peers.

State test scores presented to the board Tuesday also demonstrate that persistent achievement gap: While the percentage of students scoring “proficient” or “advanced” on math exams during the 2022-2023 school year increased, gains made by African American students were less than half of that of white students.

District 5 director Tracey Reed said that real change in this realm won’t be possible until educators fully recognize their students’ potential to learn.

“We do not have enough trust in ourselves as educators, in the students that we're seeing, to actually recognize that Black children can learn to high levels,” Reed said. “They don't do it enough in this district, but they can and they do.”

According to the PRHC agreement, the district must begin to draft an equity action plan based on the audit’s recommendations within two months of receiving it. 

Reed urged administrators to prioritize not just those recommendations that are easily implemented, but to also take on more challenging practices that could lead to transformational change.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.