An Unsuccessful 30-Year Effort To Desegregate Pittsburgh Public Schools

Oct 19, 2018

About half of Pittsburgh Public Schools' 23,000 students attend their neighborhood schools. The map that assigns kids to those schools last changed in 2012, and that realignment was meant to even out class sizes and reduce excess capacity.

Map by Zach Goldstein* 

But the story of where kids go to school in Pittsburgh has a much longer history, and over the past 50 years, the biggest driver of changes to the schools feeder pattern has been desegregation.

Racial Balance

It was February 1968. Mild weather saw chunks of ice float down the Allegheny River to the Ohio, assuaging fears of a flood. Coal workers in Somerset County were on strike. The U.S. minimum wage had just gone up to $1.60 an hour.

And on Feb. 2, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ordered Pittsburgh Public Schools to desegregate.

Technically, segregation in education had been illegal in Pennsylvania since 1881.

“Black kids still went in segregated schools because the neighborhoods are segregated,” said Ralph Proctor, professor of ethnic and diversity studies at the Community College of Allegheny County. “Black kids were not going to Shadyside, Squirrel Hill.”

The commission gave the district five months to come up with an integration plan. After missing the deadline by two-and-a-half weeks, the district submitted a proposal that relied heavily on voluntary measures, like magnet schools, and the construction of large, integrated schools over the course of several years. When the plan was rejected as showing a “lack of commitment,” the school board began exploring the idea of bussing. Some black children had already been bussed to white schools due to overcrowding, but talk of bussing white children to black schools for the sake of integration was a step too far for many parents.

“When that was even suggested, white parents went bonkers,” Proctor said. “They were going to remove their kids from the school system. They were going to sue. They were going to write their congressman. White parents would not allow it to happen.”

By 1976, several plans had been submitted and rejected, and the Human Relations Commission sought a court order to force the district to desegregate. But that year, a key change took place on the board that made achieving the state’s standard for “racial balance” even more difficult.

‘Hell No We Won’t Go’

Before 1976, the members of the school board were appointed by judges. Jean Fink is the longest serving school board member of the last half-century and was part of the first elected board.

Jean Fink ran for the school board in 1976 and served until 1993. She ran again in 1997 and served until 2013.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Fink said the appointed members were elites who were out of touch with what was really going on in the lives of Pittsburgh families.

“So we banded together. There were groups from every neighborhood and we said we need an elected school board,” Fink said. “And then the busing came up and then we really needed an elected school board.”

Fink said it wasn’t about black or white. She just didn’t want to see kids picked up out of their neighborhoods and dropped somewhere else to go to school. It was artificial, unnatural, she said.

"Hell no, we won't go."

Evelyn Neiser was an appointed school board member who kept her seat on the newly elected board. She said the district held regular meetings about how to achieve desegregation.

“Sometimes we were there until 1 or 2 in the morning listening to parents say why we shouldn't desegregate the schools,” Neiser said.

Finally, after 12 years of rancor, a comprehensive desegregation plan passed the school board in 1980. It was a narrow victory, with five board members, including Fink and Neiser, voting for it. Frances Vitti was one of the four members – along with the only two black members, Jake Milliones and Jimmy Joe Robinson – who cast a 'no' vote. She said the plan didn’t do enough, and put too much of a burden on black students to leave their neighborhoods and go to white schools.

“I remember meeting with some black families and they said ‘Do you think our children were born with wheels?’”

The state commission agreed with Vitti, and again rejected the district’s plan. Despite that, the district went ahead.

Mayor Caliguri pleaded for calm in the days leading up to the start of the school year. On Sept. 2, 1980, one-quarter of the district’s 46,000 students went to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Some went voluntarily, to magnet schools like Homewood Montessori and East Hills Elementary. Others were simply reassigned to a new school where children who looked like them had previously been in the minority.

Greenfield Elementary, for example, was supposed to go from about four-fifths white to half white and half black with the addition of children from Homewood, whose elementary school had become the Montessori. But so many white parents pulled their kids from the school that Greenfield ended up almost 75 percent black.

This happened all over the city, which is how desegregation efforts ended up perpetuating the problem they were meant to solve.

“Bussing was a temporary, bad solution,” Proctor said. “That was a Band-Aid on a … problem that needed major surgery, and we were unwilling to do the major surgery.”

An End Unto Itself

When Thurgood Marshall argued Brown v. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court, he presented desegregation as a means to an end: a way for black children to receive the same quality of education as white children. But in Pittsburgh between 1968 and 1996, desegregation became an end in and of itself. Newspaper articles from the period reveal a school system almost obsessively fixated on the proportion of black students to white students at every school.

Meanwhile, enrollment numbers plummeted amid white flight to the suburbs and the collapse of the steel industry.

In 1995, acknowledging that families continued to leave the district in droves, the board doubled down on finding a solution that was mutually acceptable to both the public and the Human Relations Commission. But when 800 people showed up to a public hearing at Schenley High School, it became clear that this would not be a kumbaya moment.

“I mean, it was a battle royale,” said Eugene Beard, who was with the local chapter of the NAACP at the time. He recalled that many white parents argued in favor of a return to neighborhood schools, but that many black parents said constituted a resegregation of the school district.

Eugene Beard was working with the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP during the 1990s.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

“Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, you know, a lot of parents just wanted their kids to be closer to home. Black parents would have liked that too,” Beard said. “But the issue was where was going to be the best education, so that African-American children could achieve just like everybody else.”

Valerie McDonald-Roberts was on City Council at the time, but had formerly served on the school board. She said an end to bussing would have been a step backwards toward inequity.

“Let's face it. That's why there was the bussing, [it] is for black children to go to the quote-unquote better schools. Not necessarily because there were white children there, it was because the resources were in the white schools,” she said. “They were not in the black schools.”

While parents debated bussing in Pittsburgh, a larger debate about the role of the Human Relations Commission took place in Harrisburg, led by four Pittsburgh-area Democrats. In the summer of 1996, Republican Gov. Tom Ridge came into town to sign a bill that prevented the commission from requiring districts to bus students for the sake of integration. With the stroke of a pen, the era of desegregation in Pittsburgh public schools was over.

In the three decades since the state order to desegregate, the school district never actually did it. Today, many schools are still not racially balanced.

Solve For Racism

School leaders were trying to solve for the wrong problem, said Tracey Reed Armant. She’s a Pittsburgh Public Schools parent, sits on the board of education advocacy group A-Plus Schools, and wrote her dissertation on desegregation in the district.

“If we just solved for racism. We don't solve for racial balance, we don't solve for adequate resources. If we just solve for racism, if that became the central thing that we solved for, then we would we would at least get at what the real problem is,” she said. “If we could all just say that black and brown children are not inherently less able.”

That their circumstances are not of their own making, or their parents’ making, or their grandparents’ making, but instead based on an established set of practices that kept the city and the schools segregated, said Reed Armant.

“Then we could start to have really honest conversations about what needs to happen to remedy it,” Reed Armant said.

Class, not race, is now the most reliable predictor of student achievement. But in Pittsburgh, class and race are closely tied, and outcomes at schools with more black students continue to lag behind white schools.

But it is possible to effectively educate black students in black neighborhoods if the will is there, said Valerie McDonald-Roberts.

“You have to have people that actually want black children to succeed,” she said.

Tracey Reed Armant said she thrived at mostly black Beltzhoover Elementary. Ralph Proctor said Herron Hill Middle School was top notch.

“In fact, when we went to Schenley High School, we laughed at the lack of knowledge of white students who came from other schools because they were behind us by at least a-year-and-a-half.”

Today, the racial makeup of schools is no longer front of mind for the district. Diversity is important, said superintendent Anthony Hamlet, but making all schools good schools is paramount.

“So you don't have to pick, ‘Oh, I'm going to go to Colfax. If not, I'm going to a charter school, I'm going to a private school,’” he said. “Now you have a plethora of choices because you're going to get the same standard of high expectations, rigorous coursework, supportive environment in any of our schools.”

The administration and board of the Pittsburgh Public Schools are awaiting the results of a year-long study of student demographics and enrollment projections. Hamlet said he believes the study will reveal that students are coming back to the district.

In addition to establishing what he called a “baseline,” Hamlet said it’s possible that the district will use the data to revisit neighborhood school assignments.

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

In the fourth part of our "Dividing Lines" series, Sarah Boden reports on how the district determined the current assignments for Pittsburgh neighborhood schools. 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.