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Nearly 50% of Pittsburgh school buildings are only half full. See how your school lines up.

The main door of Colfax Elementary and Middle School in Squirrel Hill.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh school board members voted 6-to-3 on Wednesday to begin developing a new plan for the district’s underutilized footprint.

Nearly half of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ 61 school buildings are less than 50% full, according to an internal utilization report obtained by WESA.

This comes as the district continues to face plummeting enrollment, having lost nearly 4,000 students since 2017. State projections show the district stands to lose another 4,300 students by 2030.

The 2024 PPS budget was voted through with a $29 million operating deficit, and the district officials warned that their reserves are expected to dip into the red by 2025 unless corrective action is taken.

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PPS board president Gene Walker, who introduced Wednesday’s resolution, said the administration needs to take a close look at the district’s facility plan and footprint.

He told WESA on Monday that school leaders must then “begin to put together recommendations for how we can better utilize buildings in a way that allows us to then address both budgetary issues and educational inequalities for our kids.”

“This initial plan is really the first step in a series of steps that we need to take in order to have those discussions, and make those long-term decisions, that will hopefully allow us to provide the type of education that we all say that our kids deserve,” Walker continued.

Administrators are required to provide recommendations by March 15 for potential school consolidations and building closures.

Walker said Wednesday that he expects the district to provide the board with data that shows how school buildings are being used, which are not operating as needed, and which buildings could be modernized to both increase capacity and school offerings.

Collecting that data, he continued, should coincide with the district’s efforts to construct a new five-year strategic plan, “so that we can then have a full conversation with all of the data coming in at around the same time.”

Capacity data illuminates racial and economic student disparities

According to the district’s utilization report, compiled in late October with then-unofficial enrollment figures for the 2023-2024 school year, the average PPS building has the capacity to educate 607 students.

On average, buildings in the district enroll approximately half that number, with median school enrollment sitting at 259 students.

Roughly 53% of the district’s total functional capacity is utilized, with 19,616 of PPS’ 37,054 seats filled. The average utilization rate for schools with magnet programs — into which students must apply — is only slightly better, at 62%.

School capacity is determined by two factors: the number of rooms in a given building, and the number of students that can be assigned to each room in a building.

According to district spokesperson Ebony Pugh, that varies by what grades the building serves:

  • Early childhood centers serve up to 20 students per classroom
  • K-5 schools serve up to 25 students per classroom
  • K-8 schools serve up to 26 students per classroom
  • 6-8 schools serve up to 28 students per classroom
  • 6-12 schools serve fit up to 29 students per classroom
  • 9-12 schools serve fit up to 30 students per classroom

Special education classrooms have different limits, with up to 12 students in standard classrooms, six students in small classrooms and eight students in autistic support and multiple disability classrooms.

For that reason, sought-after magnet programs could still sit below capacity, despite long waitlists. Montessori, for example, has a 72% utilization rate, further limited by restrictions on multi-grade classrooms that limit the number of students to 22 per room.

Only two schools in the district operate at or above their functional capacity: Allderdice High School and Science And Technology Academy, also known as SciTech.

Both enroll a student population that is whiter than the district as a whole, according to 2023-2024 enrollment data compiled by PPS; white students make up roughly 45% of the two schools’ student bodies, compared to just 30% of students districtwide.

That pattern continues at five of the district’s six most utilized school buildings, where a disproportionate number of white students attend and students are less likely to come from economically disadvantaged households.

As of October, three schools were operating below 25% of their capacity: Oliver Citywide Academy, which relocated its students to four satellite locations for the year; Clayton Academy, a small alternative school for students who need behavioral support; and Crescent Early Childhood Center, serving infants to five-year-olds.

Meanwhile, five of the six schools with the next-lowest utilization rates enroll a far higher proportion of students of color compared to the rest of the district.

At the Student Achievement Center, King PreK-8, Linden K-5, Manchester PreK-8 and Milliones 6-12, Black students make up roughly 80% or more of total student enrollment for this school year.

All have a share of economically-disadvantaged students higher than the district average.

Backlash to the resolution echoes pushback on past proposals

The district last considered a proposal to shake up the district’s footprint in 2021, when it weighed closing six school buildings over a two-year window — Woolslair K-5, Pittsburgh Montessori, Fulton, Miller K-5, Manchester and Morrow.

Of those schools, all but Montessori serve a student population with a share of economically-disadvantaged students either equal to or above the district’s average.

Fulton, Miller, Manchester and Morrow are majority-Black schools, while Montessori and Woolsair serve a disproportionately white student population.

Board members tabled that discussion indefinitely after receiving pushback from the community. Echoes of that resistance have already emerged: advocates with 412 Justice and the Education Rights Network published a joint letter Monday blasting the district for considering the resolution to develop a new, preliminary plan without adequate input from community stakeholders.

The resolution was added to the voting agenda on Friday, two days after the work session in which board members openly discuss all measures under consideration.

Wednesday’s vote will also come before the board formally receives results from the district’s strategic planning feedback sessions and survey, expected to be presented during an education committee meeting on Feb. 6.

“It’s problematic that we have a Board and Superintendent, Dr. Wayne Walters, who doesn’t value meaningful community input and misses the opportunity for innovation and critical thinking in addressing budget deficits,” advocates scorned.

In their letter, the groups called the resolution a “non-transparent backroom deal,” and demanded that the resolution be taken off the table.

Walker called those claims “disingenuous,” noting that the public had almost three full days to review the resolution before Monday’s public hearing.

“But it's also not a right assumption that this is some secret agenda to close everyone's schools,” Walker added. “It's about doing our job as a board, which is to provide direction to the superintendent, and then give him and his team the resources and the ability to go ahead and execute that plan.”

According to the resolution, any initial recommendations the administrators provide must include a plan for “broad community outreach,” including public hearings in advance of considering a final plan.

Still, director Emma Yourd called the decision to adopt the resolution ahead of hearing feedback on the strategic plan hasty. Yourd was one of three board members who voted against the resolution, alongside directors Jamie Piotrowski and Devon Taliaferro.

“I don't want to vote on a resolution prematurely before we're hearing about any input from the strategic plan and before the school administration then acts on the strategic plan — part of which would be to rightsize the footprint,” Yourd said.

Taliaferro, who also urged the board to postpone the vote to February, said any conversation about potential school reconfigurations without community input runs the risk of seeding community mistrust.

“I have always said that I'm not afraid to have the conversation about how we modernize our footprint, but I will not have that conversation without the voice of the community,” Taliaferro said.

In his rebuttal, however, Walker said that delaying board action on the district’s footprint any further would leave the administration with less time to plan the district’s future and shore up its finances — work “that has to be done, regardless of what the strategic plan says.”

“It's about, what are we able to do and offer to our students that provide them the best quality education?” he added. “By delaying it, we're telling our kids that they can wait — and I'm not willing to do that.”

90.5 WESA’s Oliver Morrison contributed to this report.

Corrected: January 30, 2024 at 4:15 PM EST
CORRECTION: The data in this story have been updated to reflect the district’s finalized enrollment numbers for the 2023-2024 school year. An earlier version of the story contained incorrect demographic data. We regret the error.
Updated: January 24, 2024 at 10:04 PM EST
This story was updated to include the results of Pittsburgh school board members' Wednesday vote.
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.