Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh Public Schools set to roll out a high school ethnic studies course in 2025

The main entrance to the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6–12 school.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools is planning to roll out a new ethnic studies course for high school students next year. According to administrators, all district high schools will offer the class starting in the fall of 2025.

Ann Fillmore, executive director of literacy and library services for the district, explained Tuesday that the class will be part of the district’s core social studies curriculum. It will also be a requirement to graduate beginning with students in the class of 2028.

“Students will explore and value their own cultural and racial identity while appreciating the cultural and racial differences around them,” Fillmore said.

PPS will be among the first school districts in Pennsylvania to require students to take an ethnic studies course, according to Fillmore. The course will explore cultural and racial identities not typically covered in the district’s traditional social studies classes.

Fillmore also said the district is developing course materials that reflect its student population. According to her presentation, students at PPS represent 57 countries and speak nearly a hundred different languages at home.

Students will learn about social movements, forms of oppression and examples of resilience within a range of cultures, with an emphasis on present-day issues.

“Students will be able to demonstrate a more complex understanding of the human experience, and all students will be empowered to engage socially and politically and to think critically about the world around them,” she added.

The school board approved a $1 million contract last month with two curriculum publishers — Gibbs Smith Education and Scholarus Learning — to provide course materials and teacher training for the course.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Want more stories about our education system? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

In addition to ethnic studies-related professional development, Fillmore said the district will continue to provide educators with training that will help them identify their own biases. Since the start of the 2023-2024 school year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has also required schools to incorporate “culturally and sustaining education” standards in their continuing professional development program.

Teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities will have to adopt those standards starting in the 2024-2025 academic year as well.

At PPS, the district is also working to revise coursework at the elementary and middle school levels so that it better aligns with the ethnic studies curriculum. The district’s PreK-5 social studies curricula will emphasize geography skills.

Beginning in the 2024-2025 school year, social studies lessons for students in the 6th grade will focus on the people and cultures of the Eastern Hemisphere, with lessons about the Western Hemisphere following in the 7th grade. School board members approved a $500,000 purchase of custom textbooks from McGraw Hill for the courses in February.

“The fact that we're starting this with our littlest ones, so that hopefully by the time our kindergarten kids are in high school, they are just in a much better place to deal with [and] respond to some of the things that are happening,” school board president Gene Walker said.

The district announced intentions to create a K-12 ethnic studies curriculum back in 2019 when administrators released a racial equity plan meant to ensure all students have equitable educational opportunities. The plan was born out of a decades-long effort to improve outcomes for the district’s Black students, who make up approximately 53% 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 and a persistent racial achievement gap, among other issues. More than 30 years later, PPS is still working to deliver improvements.

A 2022 agreement between PPS and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission requires the district to address its racial disparities by continuing to evaluate its culturally-relevant teaching practices, among other strategies.

Fillmore said the ethnic studies program is expected to address some of those disparities by improving student performance, engagement, and the overall quality of education.

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.