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Issues of sustainability, inclusion arise as Pittsburgh Public Schools narrows its 5-year plan

The administration building of Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools is still months away from finalizing a new five-year strategic plan, but conversations about its development are already pointing toward the need for more data and community engagement.

School board members reviewed a revised draft framework for the plan Tuesday, as well as community feedback solicited over two months.

Changes to the framework that was first introduced in December include additional language on the need to “deepen staff capacity to support successful learning experiences for all students” and “optimize resources” equitably, both inside and outside of the classroom.

“So really emphasizing that the school redesign — be that grade levels, be that magnet opportunities, be that other choice program opportunities, be that feeder patterns — that intention is to maximize curricular and non-curricular experiences,” said Martha Greenway, a consultant contracted by the district to lead the strategic plan process.

The proposed changes are the result of both in-person and virtual feedback sessions conducted by Greenway, the district, and community partners in December and January. More than 250 individuals were engaged, according to Greenway, including nearly 50 students from all of the district’s high schools.

A survey posted online on the district’s website also drew 261 responses. Greenway said common themes that emerged include calls for more attention to staffing and recruitment strategies, specific programming and curricula for students, and additional details and metrics for implementation.

She suggested that the district has spent adequate time soliciting feedback over the last several years.

“And the community gets to a point where they are ready for you to do something about what they have told you, and then the input starts to taper off because they feel like they're being asked questions that they've already responded to in other contexts,” Greenway told board members. “And as I mentioned, they're waiting to see what you're going to do. So I think that you may well be at that point.”

Several board members, however, were unconvinced that adequate feedback has been gathered and analyzed. Directors Devon Taliaferro and Yael Silk both urged Greenway to provide them with all of the comments provided during the feedback sessions, rather than the summaries provided Tuesday.

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Looking for a multi-million dollar fix

Board members are expected to vote on the revised strategic framework at their Feb. 28 legislative meeting, and from there kickstart the process to recommend specific strategic initiatives.

Those will be crafted by teams of experts and stakeholders built around the framework’s thematic pillars.

While the timeline presented Tuesday requires that recommendations be presented to PPS leadership no later than April 15, Greenway and board members both suggested that additional community engagement efforts may be necessary to narrow down the district’s options.

Early ideas voiced during the recent feedback sessions, according to Greenway, included reducing the district’s administrative overhead and selling off their central offices in Oakland.

Board president Gene Walker said that while the district’s administrative costs may be part of the problem, getting rid of the building on Bellefield avenue wouldn’t be a “$26 million fix.”

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.

“It's also important to realize that our average school — just to staff it — is $3 to $4 million,” Walker said. “So when you think about that, over the course of 54 buildings — that's not including heat and roofs and all that fun stuff — that's where the numbers really get piled up.”

Walker maintained his previous stance that consolidating or closing schools alone will not resolve the district’s financial issues, but added that they should be among the tools “that help us to then reimagine and think strategically about how we provide the best quality education for our kids by not having our staff and resources spread so widely.”

Board members voted last month to require administrators to, by March 15, provide them with recommendations for potential building closures.

Centering marginalized students while leaving none behind

New language added into the proposal to center students who have been historically marginalized by the district also became the subject of some debate.

One of the revised objectives names African American students, students with disabilities and English language learners as among those who must be prioritized through inclusionary practices.

To that, Walker raised concerns about naming certain student groups, “because ultimately we’re going to leave one out.”

But other board members, like Tracey Reed, said a strong focus on those institutionally excluded by the district is necessary.

“We have to begin to rejigger how we're thinking about this whole notion of who's left out, and leaving people out,” Reed said.

PPS Superintendent Wayne Walters said the district highlighted those specific student groups, not only to respond to community feedback, but to show that administrators are “open to calling out our areas of growth.”

A districtwide equity audit released in September found that Black students remain the lowest-performing racial group in the district and are subject to discipline at higher rates.

Director Sala Udin told administrators Tuesday that LGBTQ students and students receiving summary citations at disproportionate rates should also be centered in their work.

He added that better data will be needed to make informed decisions about the district’s future, particularly concerning school structure. That includes differences in academic offerings and outcomes at schools serving a wide range of grades, such as the district’s 11 PreK-8 school buildings as compared to those serving just middle schoolers.

“I'm not sure we are clear about what the academic differences are in those different grade structures, and whether or not they are producing the best outcomes for our students,” Udin said.

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.