By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Dozens of parents, community members and students attended a Pittsburgh Board of Education Public Hearing March 25 where half the speakers addressed black student literacy and proficiency rates in Pittsburgh Public Schools.
In the Hill District’s Weil Elementary, for example, only 25 percent of black students are reading at a proficient level. That means 75 percent of the students can’t read proficiently, at the basic level, or are illiterate. Hill District elementary school Miller K-5 is even worse, with a proficiency level of 12.8 percent.
In schools like Colfax or Beechwood, though, white students are 71.7 percent and 86.5 percent proficient; black students are just 31.2 percent and 39.2 percent efficient.
Felicity Williams, a community member and attorney told the board, “I am perplexed how we have an institution with a $650 million tax funded budget, larger than the operating budget for the entire City of Pittsburgh [and] that in most of its predominantly Black schools math and English language arts overall proficiencies are less than 35%. Who is the district accountable to? Clearly not it’s students, 53% of which are black.”
Dr. Nosakhere Griffin, candidate for District 2 School Board Director and President at The Dreamocracy Learning Lab urged the board to “meet students where they dream, not at their needs.” He said schools shouldn’t just focus on making a student a reader, but should promote reading culture. Without a reading culture and without literacy, students can’t participate fully in democracy.
“If we focus on what kids can’t do, they won’t pick up a book,” he said.
He also suggested that schools should provide books that meet students at their interests. If a student loves superheroes, what’s wrong with giving him or her a comic book?
Mica L. Williams of New Voices Pittsburgh shared her experience of growing up in foster care and “had in-grown insecurities that affected [her] grades during school.” However, Williams had educators who understood her and nurtured her. She later graduated in the top 15th percentile at UC Berkeley and became an attorney.
Williams advocates for girls who are now living a life similar to her childhood.
“New Voices believes that before we address our education system, we need to confront educator assumptions about what black students can achieve,” she said.
Williams described students who meet with her colleagues weekly. They describe teachers repeatedly telling them that “they’re going to end up on welfare so their education doesn’t matter.”
“This is tragic,” Williams said, “Bias infects everything we do.”
Dr. Kathi R. Elliott, Executive Director of Gwen’s Girls, said she was ambivalent about testifying today because she’s exhausted. Many in the chamber clapped and nodded in agreement. She said one thing was for certain: “Racism permeates Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pittsburgh and the country. Until we begin to address those things…and the things that impact black and brown people—until we have that courageous conversation, we won’t be successful in any strategy we try to implement.”
Concerned citizens and parents are also encouraged to attend the next Black Girls Equity Alliance (BGEA) education workgroup meeting from 1-3 p.m. on April 1. Board of Education member Sala Udin will be presenting.
The presentation will be in the lower level conference room of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development (400 N Lexington St, Pittsburgh, PA 15208)
In the meeting’s announcement, BGEA addressed how disparity in education for black students is multi-faceted: “…issues that are occurring in the education system intersect with issues that occur in the other systems (child welfare, juvenile justice, mental healthcare, etc). This workgroup will be looking for ACTIONABLE ways to challenge, push, and hold school districts accountable for the disproportionate educational outcomes that we see in Allegheny County. There are many that have been at the forefront advocating and demanding change. Please join us to inform us on ways we can work together.”
Please click here to RSVP to Udin’s April 1 presentation.
Parents and community members are also encouraged to attend the next Public Hearing for PPS Board on Monday, April 8 at 6 p.m.. For updates, and action items, follow the Call to Action event here.
The April 8 hearing will take place at the Board of Education located at 341 S Bellefield Avenue.