Superintendent Hamlet On Improving Schools: 'It's Not A Sprint, It's A Marathon'

Oct 26, 2018

School board member Sala Udin stood in front of a crowded room of concerned parents and community members this week and promised change.

The high school in his district, University Prep 6-12, performs poorly in state standardized tests. Ninety percent of the nearly 400 students are black and most are scoring at the basic level. In the 2017 Keystone exam given to 11th graders, 25 percent of black students scored at a proficient level in literature and 30 percent of black students scored proficient in algebra.

Udin said turning around the school begins with having a conversation.

“You start by admitting that we are failing. And you start pulling all hands on deck, bringing everybody to the table,” he said.

The meeting was meant to be an opportunity for community members to get to know the school’s new principal, Virginia Hill. But as Udin told his fellow board members Wednesday, it was also a time for parents to tell district leaders what they thought of the school. Hill is putting together a 90-day plan for improvement. Udin said he would advocate for Hill to get the resources she needs.

The challenges at University Prep are reflected more broadly at the district level.

Today, white students make up a third of Pittsburgh’s enrollment and African Americans about half. But white children are far more likely to be enrolled in at least one advanced placement course and students of color are far more likely to be suspended out of school.

A district-wide effort to “bring everyone to the table” is just beginning. 

Map by Zach Goldstein*

Change Takes Time

At this year’s State of the District address, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet stressed that transformational change is slow, difficult work.

As the theme song from the movie Chariots of Fire played in the background, Hamlet accepted a gold baton from the Brashear High School senior who introduced him. He paced the stage while a video of the Pittsburgh Marathon played behind him. It’s a metaphor he has embraced while talking about how to improve the district.

“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We are committed to completing each leg of the race to reach our long-term desired outcomes for our students,” he said.

In order to finish the race, Hamlet said the district needs a better lay of the land. He’s awaiting the results of a demographic study the district commissioned this time last year. That study will look at where students live and where they are attending school, both public and private.

State of the District - September 18, 2018 from Pittsburgh Public Schools

It will also capture data on race and socioeconomic status.

For decades, leaders in Hamlet’s position focused on racial balance in schools as the key to addressing achievement disparities because, historically, white schools have received more resources than black schools. But the district has pivoted. Hamlet said further integrating schools isn’t his primary goal. His goal is to make all schools good schools. That starts with believing all students – black or white, rich or poor - can achieve.

“And that's the difference-maker to me, that we have high expectations for all students and meet them where they are,” he said. “Lift them up, then we'll see equity begin to manifest itself in a more robust way in our schools.”

Getting The Community On Board

But exactly how that equity manifests in schools remains to be seen. Hamlet said everything is on the table: opening schools, closing schools, changing feeder pattern lines or throwing the whole map out the window and letting parents choose which school to send their kids to.

Errika Fearby Jones, Hamlet’s chief of staff, said any change has to have buy-in from the community.

We want to talk to people about this,” she said. “We don't want to do anything that is haphazard ill-informed and not that that does not have a ton of engagement around it.

But community meetings, drafting plans, going back to the community and board, and then actually executing those plans all takes time.

Board member Sala Udin said the school system, including University Prep, is failing black students now.

“I wish more people were angry about it. I’m angry about it. It has to change and it has to change quickly. Not in 75 or 100 years,” he said.

Parents are concerned, and most parents don’t send their kids to neighborhood schools.

University Prep in the Hill draws kids from a wide swath of Pittsburgh neighborhoods: from downtown to North Oakland up to Morningside. But only 18 percent of students assigned to attend the school actually go there.

Some parents who spoke at the meeting this week said they know that the choices they make affect other students. But, they said they have to put their own children first.

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

*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.