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'A toxic culture': Staff engagement survey reveals low morale at Pittsburgh Public Schools

Tall building with glass windows.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Results of a third-party staff survey at Pittsburgh Public Schools reveal “a lack of accountability, negativity, and a fear of innovation” inside the district.

The employee engagement survey was conducted this spring by the Ontario-based human resources consulting firm McLean & Company, hired by the district to help develop recruitment and retention strategies.

The survey dives into drivers of employee morale, including coworker relationships and work-life balance. 1,971 employees participated in the survey — a little less than half of the district’s 4,200-person staff.

According to a presentation to district employees last month, 85% of respondents were “very proud” of the work they do, and 71% said they were “very committed to Pittsburgh Public Schools.”

In a summary of its findings, however, McLean & Company said staff also indicated “a toxic culture within the organization.” The results come as the district heads into a period of tumult, with a looming possibility of major facility changes and school consolidations.

“Staff members feel unheard and unsupported, leading to low morale and a decline in trust between administrators and teachers,” consultants wrote.

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“A five-alarm fire”

McLean & Company asked staff to rate, on a scale of zero to 10, how likely they are “to recommend Pittsburgh Public Schools to a qualified friend or a family member as a great place to work.”

The organization considers ratings of six or below an indication of “unhappy employees who can damage [an] organization.” More than 60% of respondents fell into that category.

“If you're the director of HR and you're seeing that something like 60 or 70% of your staff would not recommend their friends apply to your organization, that's a five-alarm fire,” said Jon Parker, an English teacher at Allderdice High School.

Parker said the rapport among teachers and school-level colleagues continues to be positive, and he’s excited about the opportunities available to students at Allderdice. Parker sends his own daughter there for that reason.

“They're amazing teachers and opportunities and experiences,” Parker said. “And at the same time, I'm concerned for both the immediate and long-term health of the district as a whole.”

Parker said he has seen teachers in the district leave, or consider leaving, “in the prime of their career.” While not yet ready to leave Allderdice altogether, Parker is stepping down as head of his school’s English department after six years because of his frustrations with district leadership.

He said no one with the district’s central administration or school board is listening when teachers bring up issues, and he doesn’t expect that to change.

“It’s worse than unresponsiveness,” Parker said. “Asking for feedback and then ignoring all of it is worse than never asking for it.”

He said he’s tired of trying to have a voice in the district’s vision. For now, he’s taking a 5% pay cut and trying to do his best for his students.

“I know very few people in the profession who would stay in Pittsburgh Public [Schools] if they didn't have another plausible opportunity somewhere else,” Parker added.

According to the McLean survey, only 76% of respondents said they still expect to work at Pittsburgh Public Schools a year from now — meaning roughly a quarter of them plan to leave.

District chief human resources officer Margaret Rudolph attributed the bulk to teachers and school leaders nearing retirement eligibility.

“And then you couple that with a teacher shortage and a school leader shortage,” Rudolph said. “If we don't start to invest in some succession planning, we could really find ourselves in a pickle.”

Mental health is among teachers’ top concerns

According to Rudolph, the district is launching focus groups to address three key issues brought up in the survey: school collaboration, career advancement and the district’s working environment. She said the district will work with staff to identify action items under those three drivers.

In the working environment focus group, a special emphasis will be placed on mental health and safety — things only 17% of staff surveyed said the district takes action to maintain.

“As far as mental health is concerned, there's not a lot of support there,” said Shaquaya Gilbert, an English teacher in the district.

Gilbert taught at UPrep Milliones — a combined middle and high school in the Hill District — for six years. While there, multiple students were killed by gun violence.

“That really took a toll on me, and it was very difficult to return the last school year that I worked there,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert is a product of Pittsburgh Public Schools, having graduated from Perry Traditional Academy on the North Side in 2002. She said that’s helped her foster a special connection with her students.

While more than half of the district’s students are Black, the majority of teachers are not. Gilbert is often the first Black teacher her students have seen.

Gilbert said knowing that often gives her “a sense of purpose,” and has kept her in the classroom. But as much as she felt like her students at UPrep Milliones needed her, Gilbert said it was also draining at times.

“Because they felt like there was nobody else in the building that listened and I was one of the only people in the building that cared,” she said. “I became everybody's school mom, aunt, and it was just very overwhelming.”

In 2022, Gilbert took a leave of absence. She later moved to Pittsburgh Schiller, a middle school on the North Side.

Gilbert said her colleagues there are supportive, but she noted that both district employees and students need more mental health resources.

Principals are often too busy “putting out fires everywhere else” to give teachers the support they need, Gilbert said.

For students, the district employs just one counselor or social worker for every 350 students — well beyond the student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1 recommended by the School Social Work Association of America.

Educators say alternatives to discipline aren’t adequately funded

When presenting their facilities utilization plan in April, administrators cited the rising number of students in need of therapeutic interventions as one of the district’s biggest challenges. According to teachers, that’s partially due to a shortage of personnel.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded Pittsburgh Public Schools a $3 million grant to implement restorative justice practices over three years. The initiative was intended to reduce the overall number of student suspensions by making space for group discussions to address conflict, rather than implementing punitive disciplinary measures.

A study published by the RAND Corporation in 2018 found the district reduced overall suspensions by 18% over two years, and 36% in schools participating in the DOJ initiative. Teachers reported improvements in school safety and climate.

But Jeremiah Dugan, a social studies teacher at South Brook 6-8, said that while the restorative practices initiative was great in theory, the staffing levels and supports required to effectively implement it haven’t been sustained.

“The staff staffing wasn't there to support all the time that was prescribed to do restorative practices,” Dugan said. “And then there's just a general feeling that there's a lack of consequences.”

Dugan also cited changes to the Code of Conduct, the districtwide ongoing moratorium on summary citations, and budget cuts that have reduced the number of adults present to address student behavior and conflict. Allderdice’s teaching staff will be reduced by about a dozen positions next school year due to declining enrollment.

Dugan said that while the school board has worked to make Pittsburgh Public Schools a more equitable place, it hasn’t invested the proper supports or infrastructure needed to realize that vision.

School board president Gene Walker said he wants to address that gap by setting clear guidelines for discipline in the district, but other major items are dominating agendas. In addition to possible closures, the district is working to avert financial catastrophe and develop a strategic plan for the next five years.

“We’ve kind of got some really big fish that we're trying to deal with – not that discipline isn't a big deal,” Walker said. “But I think it's something that we could be more intentional about.”

“It's all the more demoralizing”

Meanwhile, teachers like Gilbert described difficulties watching punitive policies continue to dominate, despite the district’s emphasis and training on restorative justice models.

Less than a third of survey respondents felt that Pittsburgh Public Schools’ mission was “reflected in the day-to-day activities of the organization.” That can be demoralizing for teachers, said Sarah Dahill-Brown, a professor of education policy and politics at Wake Forest University.

“It's all the more demoralizing if teachers are put in the position where they know what the right thing is, but they don't have the opportunity to do it,” Dahill-Brown said. “Or they don't have the resources and support and time and space and staff to do it.”

She added that teachers nationwide are facing this pressure, especially in under-resourced and large, urban school districts.

“It's not as though they are flush with consistent money and consistent support for doing your programming well,” Dahill-Brown said.

Districts across the region face rising health care costs, and federal pandemic aid that once gave schools a buffer has largely been used up.

Teachers like Traci Castro are aware of all of these problems and want to be a part of the solution.

“I wouldn't go to a mechanic and tell a mechanic how to do their job when I don't know how to fix the car,” said Castro, who teaches psychology and civics classes at Allderdice. “I'm going to ask some questions, I’m going to trust that you know what you’re doing and I’m going to respect you.”

Castro said that if administrators are unsure, they should embrace curiosity and find ways to tap into the collective wisdom in front of them.

“We can make it better,” Castro said. “We're not in this because we get the summer off.”

Updated: June 21, 2024 at 5:47 PM EDT
Story has been updated with new links to the research and findings regarding the survey.
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.