Sabira Bushra lives on the same street where she was raised.
The street filled with two-story homes and bush-lined sidewalks in the East End Belmar neighborhood hasn’t changed very much since she was a child.
Note to readers: this story contains strong, racially charged language.
She loved growing up there so much that she moved back as an adult.
But for most of her young life, a bus took Bushra to neighborhood schools in Regent Square and Squirrel Hill.
Bushra, 64, was one of the first students to be bussed out of her mostly-black neighborhood in order to attend elementary and high schools in mostly white areas. The school board approved the transfer of 140 elementary students in 1965, but said it wasn’t an effort to desegregate schools, but rather a way to relieve an overcrowded school in the city’s Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar neighborhood.
While Lemington Elementary School was nearing capacity, other East End schools had empty desks. Parents whose children went to those schools protested the board’s choice saying they didn’t want their schools to become overcrowded. They said it wasn’t a race issue.
Richard Jones, one of two black board members at the time, was quoted in a 1965 Pittsburgh Press article saying the real issue was integration.
“Those who want to retain the ethnic nature of their community should come out publicly and say so," he said during a school board meeting. “At that time, I’ll have something to say so myself.”
The board approved the move unanimously and students left Lemington School to attend Regent Square School, Swisshelm School and Davis School in Squirrel Hill. Some of those schools fed into Taylor Allderdice High School, another mostly-white school.
Bussing of black students to schools in white neighborhoods became commonplace throughout the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. The district sliced and diced neighborhoods, siphoning off black children to attend mostly white schools -- or sometimes the reverse -- to achieve court-ordered "racial balance."
Some of those changes became entrenched in the school feeder pattern, a map that assigns students to neighborhood schools based on where they live.
Today, if you look at a map of the district’s feeder pattern, there are two areas that look like mistakes.
These areas in Belmar and East Hills resemble islands. Current and former district employees say those islands were intentionally maintained.
Map by Zach Goldstein*
'Prejudice Is Taught'
Bushra’s neighborhood of Belmar Gardens is a housing co-operative, thought to be the first in the country to be owned by all African-American shareholders who had been denied mortgages by banks. These days, she said most residents are older and there are fewer school-aged children.
The elementary schools that students were bussed to in 1965 have closed. But, 53 years after the board voted to transfer students, school-aged children in that neighborhood are still assigned to Squirrel Hill schools.
Rebecca Tardy Brown, 63, also grew up in Belmar. Like Bushra, her family was attracted to the stable neighborhood where families owned homes and neighbors knew one another. Brown remembers when her parents told her she would have to leave Lemington Elementary and attend Swisshelm Park, a mostly-white school.
“I remember no one’s parents being excited for us to make the move. Lemington was a fantastic school and it was well integrated,” she said. “At that point, they were breaking up a neighborhood that was very much like a family.”
She also remembers feeling unwelcomed in her new school.
“I remember being called nigger. Having rocks and things thrown at our bus. Kids not being allowed to talk to us in the classroom and not wanting to sit next to us,” she said.
Over time, Brown said, attitudes changed. She made friends with white students.
“Eventually the kids there learned that we were as smart as them. We learned the same as them. We bled the same. We ate the same foods. And a lot of kids eventually took the risk of being punished at home and became our friends,” she said.
“Prejudice is taught and they got a lesson from us that we were the same and it kind of changed some people, not everybody, but some.”
Both Bushra and Brown say they received a quality education throughout their time in public schools.
“I got a good everything at Allderdice. A good social life good education. I had fun in high school. I learned a lot. It got me where I am,” Brown said.
The student population at Allderdice is 48 percent white and 40 percent black. Just 3 miles away at Westinghouse 6-12, 97 percent of students are black. Allderdice is one of the highest performing neighborhood high schools in the district and Westinghouse is among the poorest performing with the second lowest graduation rate.
'Keep Children In The Seats'
Former Pittsburgh Public Schools employee Cate Reed said these few streets where children attend different schools than their neighbors remain because generations of families have chosen to attend the Squirrel Hill schools.
Reed was the executive director of strategic priorities the last time the district changed the feeder pattern to create more uniform class sizes in schools in 2012. She said the board didn’t have an appetite to change those boundary lines.
“The idea that you would take away Colfax or Allderdice from a family as their home school just frankly didn't feel good. The idea of taking that away from African-American families felt frankly discriminatory,” she said.
According to data collected by Pittsburgh education advocacy group A Plus Schools, about 30 percent of students assigned to Colfax K-8, which also draws students from Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Point Breeze, attend the school. But according to Reed, many students in the East Hills “island” choose to attend their assigned school, Colfax.
“We have communities where almost nobody is going to the school they’re assigned to,” she said. “This district wants to keep children in the seats. Why in the world would you take a community where almost every kid is choosing to go to their school and send them to a school where we know there’s a high likelihood that very few of them will choose to go if your goal is maintaining population?”
The East Hills island includes Second East Hills, a public housing development. For decades, there was a public elementary school nearby, which later became a magnet school. Since white children were now voluntarily coming to the East Hills, taking up seats in what had been the neighborhood school, the black children were bussed in to Squirrel Hill.
Errika Fearby Jones, chief of staff for Pittsburgh Public Schools’ superintendent Anthony Hamlet, said past boards and leaders made decisions when evaluating the feeder pattern based on “human elements."
“I would think that some of those decisions that were made were strong in regards to staying the way they are because they were made for a reason and we want to make sure that we include all of those things in the mix,” she said.
Despite the challenges that came with being one of few black students in a mostly white school, Brown said her experience was worthwhile.
“I think every child has a right to equal education. Of course, back then it was said that the schools with the whites were the schools that had more money in their area and got the better teachers and got more materials. Was that true? Probably,” she said.
Check out the elementary and middle school feeder pattern maps here.
In the second part of our "Dividing Lines" series, Margaret J. Krauss reports on how Pittsburgh schools -- and neighborhoods -- came to be segregated in the first place. 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.
**This story has been updated to correct Sabira Bushra's name.