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A+ Schools Report Calls Out Educational ‘Caste System’

On today's program: A+ School’s latest report questions systemic inequities and where they can be resolved in public schools; Local resettlement organizations are preparing to support more refugees; and Marisel Vera’s new novel follows a Puerto Rican family that immigrated to Hawai’i.

Report from A+ Schools calls on Pittsburgh schools to reckon with “caste system” in education
(00:00 — 6:45)

Pittsburgh education advocacy organization A+ Schools released its annual report to the Community on Public School Progress this week.

This year’s report considers systemic inequity and calls on communities to reckon with the “American caste system” in education. A+ Schools Executive Director James Fogarty explains this caste system as “ingrained hierarchies that exist in our communities that are based on race in many ways.”

In uncovering the disparities, the report pulls demographic data from attendance, rates of chronic absenteeism and gifted students.

“How we evaluate and assess that at young ages, if you look at the data in Pittsburgh Public Schools, means that kids that are coming from higher resourced households are much more likely to be labeled gifted,” says Fogarty. “Based on our history of segregation, you end up seeing that most of the kids that get identified as gifted in Pittsburgh Public Schools are white in a district that’s 70 percent kids of color.”

This two-tier system, he says, is implemented as early as kindergarten and is exacerbated not only by school but factors outside of education as well.

He offers housing as an example: “We see that the kind of shift in where affordable housing is available in the city as certain neighborhoods gentrify means that you create higher mobility. For who?”

He says poor families being pushed out of gentrifying neighborhoods have to move to avoid eviction amidst other financial struggles.

“When you have predominantly black and brown families who are in poverty in Pittsburgh who have to move a lot, is it any wonder that the results we see are the results we get?”

However, there are some bright spots: There are almost no gaps in student achievement when comparing students by race among those who exit Pittsburgh Public Schools early childhood program, and Fogarty challenges that it’s possible to minimize gaps among older students too.

Colfax K-8 school, for example, is making academic standards transparent to students; this means clearly stating benchmarks in subjects like reading that students need to conquer prior to leaving the grade.

Local resettlement groups prepare to ramp up refugee support ahead of Biden Administration
(6:51 — 13:05)

President-elect Joe Biden announced plans to reassert the nation’s commitment to refugees after the Trump Administration drastically reduced refugee admissions for next year to the lowest on record: from 110,000 in 2016 to 15,000 in fiscal year 2021.

Biden has said he’ll raise the refugee admissions cap to 125,000, and will seek to raise it even more over time.

Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee and immigrant services at Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS), says the incoming president’s plans mean ramping up their efforts as well.

The anticipated influx means seeking interpreters and resources in native languages of incoming refugees, along with assessing the organization's staff and current resources.

All local refugee resettlement agencies are required to follow a series of steps to prepare for a refugee’s arrival, like ensuring they have a safe place to live, some money for essentials, and receive cultural orientation and education on local life.

“Housing is probably the most challenging thing to find,” says Aizenman, adding that JFCS relies on partners. “We need to assure that we find for them, and then they later pay on their own, housing that’s decent, safe, on a bus line, that they can afford with the money they’ll earn in their first jobs in the U.S.”

Aizenman says those most likely to arrive in the near future are friends and family of Burmese, Syrian and other refugees already in the U.S. Those ready to travel have likely been waiting overseas, and gone through the long process of being approved . However, she anticipates there will be a delay in ramping up refugee resettlement because of COVID-19.

Aizenman predicts the number of incoming refugees may rise starting in late summer, but expects that the refugee cap will be raised at least by October of 2021.

“We just have to see how fast or how slow we can ramp up, keeping everything in mind: That people have to be vetted, people have to go through all the security, and all the infrastructure that was somewhat dismantled over the last four years.”

Marisel Vera’s new novel is a reflection on Puerto Rico’s past
(13:12 — 18:00)

Pittsburgh-based author Marisel Vera’s latest novel, “The Taste of Sugar” tells the multigenerational story of a Puerto Rican farming family who immigrate to Hawai’i at the turn of the 20th century.

Vera spoke to WESA arts reporter Bill O’Driscollabout the story, including how the idea came, in part, from considering her own Puerto Rican roots.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at
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