Strange Shapes, Jagged Lines: The Patchwork Of Pittsburgh School Zones

Oct 22, 2018

When Kate Anglin and her husband, Ben, were house hunting earlier this year, school quality was big concern. The couple have a toddler and a newborn.

Anglin said it would have helped to have a map showing what areas of Pittsburgh are zoned to what schools, but Pittsburgh Public School doesn't have a map that's publically available. So, for each house they considered, the Anglins typed its address into a portal on the district’s website to figure out the assigned school.

Kate Anglin holds her newborn, Jack, in their home in Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood.
Credit Sarah Boden / 90.5 WESA

“That was a frustrating process,” Anglin said.

The couple ended up in a two-story red brick home, in the feeder zone for Greenfield K-8 School, which is less than a mile from their home. The school is ranked fourth out of the district’s 38 primary schools. But Anglin would still like to see how the district is zoned.

“I just think for transparency, it would make sense that they share a map since clearly they … know who goes where,” she said. 

90.5 WESA also wanted to know what the map of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ feeder pattern looked like, so we created one using 2016 data from the U.S. Department of Education. For accuracy, we cross referenced that information with data obtained from the district through a Right to Know request.

In some places, the result is a patchwork of strange shapes and jagged lines.

Map by Zach Goldstein*

Still, the borders aren't as erratic as they once were. The district last changed school zone boundaries in 2012. At this time there were too many buildings, not enough students, a budget deficit and a feeder pattern was even more of a jumble than it is today.

Map of 2011 zones for Colfax, Minadeo and Faison elementary schools.
Credit Bob Gradeck / University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research

For example, before realignment, boundaries of the elementary schools Lincoln, Fulton and now-closed Fort Pitt converged at the corner of Station Street and Centre Avenue in East Liberty, near the Home Depot. The western side of Center Avenue flip-flopped back and forth between Fort Pitt and Fulton for about a half-mile.

"This was definitely a community that had a lot of different elementary feeder schools that sort of convalesced in one area, and had varying borders,” said Cate Reed, director of strategic priorities for the district during the 2012 realignment. “Some more logical than others.” 

Map of 2011 zones of Stevens, Phillips, Whittier, Banksville, Grandview, Arlington, Beechwood, Brookline, West Liberty, Murray and Roosevelt elementary schools.
Credit Bob Gradeck / University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research

Another problem: the pre-2012 elementary school feeder pattern didn’t neatly overlap with the middle schools, which didn’t overlap with the high schools. When students aged into a new building they were with a different mix of kids. Reed said that was stressful for families.

“It wasn’t fair, and that’s an opinion not a fact,” said Reed. “But ... in my opinion it just wasn’t fair to families.”

Today, school assignments are more uniform. Each elementary funnels kids to only one middle or high school, depending on whether the elementary is a K-5 or K-8.

Map of current feeder pattern for Pittsburgh Westwood K-5, and Pittsburgh Langley K-8. Note how the Westwood school zone is noncontiguous.
Credit 90.5 WESA News

Getting to this point was complicated and painful, said Reed. Newspaper articles from the time reveal that some people felt the realignment and concurrent school closures -- including Oliver and Langley high schools -- disrupted their sense of neighborhood identity.

Segregation, bussing, population decline and board politics have also impacted the school feeder pattern, which has made tracing the history of the map akin to untangling an endless knot.

Pittsburgh’s labyrinth-like street grid and ever-changing demographics only complicate the situation.

“Look right here at the corner,” said Reed, gesturing towards the intersection of Centre Avenue and Broad Street. “There used to be a huge high rise. Now there’s a Target. Guess how many kids are living in the Target? Zero.”

James Fogarty is the executive director of A Plus Schools, a Pittsburgh non-profit that advocates for education quality and equity. He said the pre-2012 feeder was not only confusing, it created an unequal distribution of resources.

Pre-2012 map of the Pittsburgh elementary school feeder pattern.
Credit Bob Gradeck / University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research

“At the time, you had 10 schools that didn’t have arts, didn’t have music, didn’t have a librarian,” said Fogarty.

Funding is partly enrollment-based, so schools in neighborhoods that had lost population had smaller classes and therefore less money.

After realignment, funding, students and staff were more equally distributed. For example, the Manchester School got a librarian one day a week, but the Colfax school's music teacher was cut to part-time, according to media reports.

“To get some kids -- predominately black children in ... high poverty schools -- the resources that white children, predominately, were getting in their schools, meant that we had to do some shifts,” said Fogarty.

Despite these changes, performance outcomes today are still lower for black students than white. And demographics continue to shift, so the district is likely to revisit its feeder pattern again before today’s grade schoolers head to college.

Check out the middle and high school feeder pattern maps here.

In the fifth part of our "Dividing Lines" series, Zach Goldstein reports on Minadeo Elementary, where the majority of students are black, even though the neighborhood it draws from is mostly white. Find more from our series "Dividing Lines" at wesa-dot-fm-slash-dividing-lines.Find more at wesa.fm/dividinglines.

*This map was created using data obtained from the U.S. Department of Education and may have slight differences from the current PPS school assignments. The district’s online form is still the definitive way to determine which school a particular address is assigned to.