Pittsburgh Public School officials say it’s clear that student zip codes often define the type of education they receive.
“We know that. Everybody knows it. So instead of just knowing it, we’re going to do a system wide approach. The system is what needs to change,” said Errika Fearby Jones, the chief of staff for Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Over the next six months, Fearby Jones and other district leaders are taking on an effort to fix the system. They’re holding community meetings beginning in December, they’re talking to city and philanthropic leaders and the teacher’s union to create a plan that will “ensure all of our neighborhoods and communities have high-performing schools with clear pathways and no dead ends with prekindergarten and ending at graduation.”
It’s unclear what that process or the plan will look like yet as Fearby Jones said she wants to include all voices in the work through community meetings.
According to contracts approved by the board this month, the work will include analyzing the district’s neighborhood and magnet schools, graduation requirements and career pathway options.
It will also review feeder patterns, which determine the schools students attend based on where they live. Fearby Jones acknowledges that a feeder pattern conversation could make families nervous about school closures.
The last time the district took on a “realignment plan” in 2011, it closed seven schools. Those cuts were made as the district faced “daunting financial challenges” including a growing budget deficit, under utilized classrooms and feeder patterns that were more confusing than they are today.
“While there are going to be people who are waiting for the shoe to drop, waiting to see if something will close … what we’re really trying to do is ask ‘how do we make a great public school system?’” she said. “We are being intentional of trying to lead in the way of talking about what we want. Not just having the district present a plan, but actually bringing people along in the process.”
At the end of the six months, the district wants to have a five-year plan informed by population shifts and enrollment data that, as Fearby Jones says, will change the system.
One of the first steps in that process was the release of a demographic study at Monday’s Education Committee Meeting. It found that enrollment has dropped by 17 percent in the last 10 years bringing enrollment to 23,331 students last year. It is projected to decline another 7 percent in the next 10 years.
Map by Zach Goldstein*
According to the report, birth rates are down in the city and charter school enrollments are up by about 5 percent, or 206 students, since the 2013-14 school year.
But, the proportion of kids living in the city who attend PPS has remained steady, at around 64 percent, for the last five years. Last year, 23 percent of city students went to non-public schools and 13 percent attended charters.
That seemed to be encouraging news to some board members. President Lynda Wrenn, though, asked why there wasn’t data about Pittsburgh families moving to suburban school districts.
“I’ve heard this anecdotally you know ‘public school’s not working out for our oldest so we’re just going to move the whole family to another school district because we can’t pay private tuition and afford our house,’” she said at Monday’s meeting.
Fearby Jones said the district isn’t surveying families when they leave the district. She said those are only anecdotes, and she wants data on the students the district does capture.
Board member Regina Holley said housing is also a contributing factor to lower enrollment. She said families are being priced out of their neighborhoods and leaving the city.
“It’s not that we don’t have good schools for children to go to. Our children have been taken away, a lot of them, and placed … somewhere else,” she said.
What’s clear is that the district has a lot of hard work ahead. Fearby Jones said there are conversations that have to happen school to school. Colfax Elementary in Squirrel Hill, for example, is near capacity. School leaders have even had discussions about opening classrooms in the basement of the building. Meanwhile, other schools are at half capacity.
“Something is going to have to be done, but we’re doing it together,” she said.
The district has already had one conversation with Colfax parents, and Fearby Jones said parents were frustrated because the district didn’t have a plan.
“And we actually said no, we’re here to listen. We want to listen to you and we’re trying to make this decision,” she said.
The district hasn’t announced a schedule of community meetings, but expects them to begin in December.