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A+ Schools annual report focused on inequities, changes caused by pandemic

The main door of Colfax Elementary and Middle School in Squirrel Hill.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

On today’s episode of The Confluence: We hear from A+ Schools’ James Fogarty about the organization’s annual report to the community, which this year focuses broadly on Pittsburgh schools’ challenges and how the pandemic highlighted disparities; although school board races may have seemed more partisan than usual amid masking and curriculum debates, political action committee spending wasn’t as decisive as one might believe; and a dance project based in Pittsburgh's historic neighborhoods brings viewers to performances through virtual reality. 

A+ School annual report calls out inequitable funding and access to opportunities in Pittsburgh schools
(0:00 - 8:03)

Pittsburgh Public Schools and the City of Pittsburgh are at a critical juncture in part due to the ongoing pandemic, the resignation of the district’s superintendent and the gaps in resources between schools. That’s according to the annual report from the education advocacy group A+ Schools.

The 2021 Report to the Community indicates the district faces four major challenges: segregation, funding equity, access to opportunities, and attendance.

“When we talk about ending segregation and thinking about integration, we also have to recognize these families have choices,” says James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools. “Building schools, innovative schools that get people to cross boundaries that we have in our city is an important part of that.”

Fogarty says one way schools can become more equitable is if funding takes into account the socioeconomic status of students. The report points out that schools with a high population of students of color also tend to include poor families.

“What we see is schools like Perry High School with high poverty, about 80% [of students]. About 31% of the kids with disabilities get almost $2,000 less per pupil than a school like CAPA [Creative and Performing Arts] with much lower rates of poverty and much lower rates of students with disabilities.”

Fogarty says under-resourced schools see high turnover in administrative leadership and teachers, and often have students with high needs who are academically behind by the time they arrive in school, due to lacking resources like child care in their communities.

“Poverty isn’t destiny, but we shouldn’t make it harder for us to educate students by concentrating the issues of poverty into just a few buildings, then expecting that the outcomes would be different,” says Fogarty.

The report didn’t have the same standardized testing data as previous years due to the pandemic.

Spending did not predict election success, though it did amplify partisan voices on some issues
(8:08 - 13:05)

After Republicans won big in Virginia this month, much was made about how the elections were a referendum on hot-button school issues related to COVID-19, race and gender.

Many pundits said Democrats have clear lessons to learn.

But a Keystone Crossroads analysis of heavily funded school board races in Pennsylvania tells a much more nuanced story that undermines claims of a so-called red wave.

Reporter Katie Meyer has more on this investigation.

A virtual reality dance project brings viewers to different Pittsburgh neighborhoods
(13:09 - 22:30)

The pandemic forced arts organizations to utilize technology to get their work before audiences. While adapting in the moment created some opportunities, other arts organizations are considering a long-term incorporation of technology into their work.

Some of those artists came together to create a new dance performance that’s available to view online. It’s called the Virtual Dance Exchange Project.

“We really focused on three different locations in Pittsburgh,” says Shana Simmons, owner of the Shana Simmons Dance Company. “Over the course of the past year, the four collaborators have been meeting weekly and talking about anything from race and dance, how verbiage can be used or used incorrectly to describe dancing bodies in space, civic structure and dance communities and how we can sustain living for artists here in Pittsburgh.”

The meetings culminated in dances, filmed on location, that take a viewer not only to the performance, but to the place it was filmed through virtual reality.

“These locations have elements of renewal, elements of regeneration all from different kinds of levels of who is doing the regeneration process,” says Simmons.

She adds that filming the project in 360-degree technology created an immersive experience for viewers.

“In using different locations to speak to our creation of art, not only were we highlighting this idea of how beautiful the city is, but then also that bond between dance, movement, the movement through space and time, and then also symbolizing a city’s process of doing the exact same thing,” says Chrisala Brown, a local choreographer and educator focusing on West African dance.

Brown says choreographing for a 360-video experience was both a challenge and opportunity.

“With what I do, the study of West African dance, it’s very much a part of culture, there is no stage necessarily involved in this study,” says Brown. “How do you take someone on that experience and make them sort of part of this community? [Filming in] 360 allowed us to do that.”

The project is available to view online through Dec. 1, but tickets have to be purchased by November 20.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.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.

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