Without test data to analyze, A+ Schools focus on Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Racial inequities in annual report

By November 18, 2020 No Comments

By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer

In any other year, the  A+ Schools Report to the Community would focus heavily on academic achievement in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

But annual state assessment tests in math, English language arts and science for elementary and secondary students in public schools didn’t happen in spring 2020 because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Absent new academic achievement data to analyze, James Fogarty, A+ Schools executive director, decided to use the 2020 report, released Monday, to reflect on a school system that has, for years, supported the success of white and economically advantaged students over students who are poor or Black.

In his introduction, Fogarty quotes author Isabel Wilkerson in describing a “caste system” that exists in America and in schools — a system that, he writes, “perpetuates existing inequities in our society.”

The report points to how those inequities exist in the Pittsburgh school system in the racial achievement gaps in academic performance, the racial makeup of gifted and advanced placement classrooms, the racial disparity in graduation rates and the disparate discipline that exists even though suspension rates are down from four years ago.

The report also looks at the district’s magnet system, which often makes acceptance more open to students from well-resourced families and is quick to eject students who don’t meet discipline and attendance guidelines.

Fogarty insists that now is the time to address these issues.

“It’s not like the [school] board and administration haven’t thought about it. … There are certain truths that are staring us in the face,” Fogarty said in an interview.

During his presentation of the report on Monday, Nov. 16, Fogarty said that although the system is currently “unjust and inequitable,” the results “are not inevitable by any means.”

Fogarty said good work being done in some of the schools — highlighted as “bright spots” in the report — and increased collaboration between community groups and schools provide hope that improvements can be made.

Minika Jenkins, chief academic officer for the Pittsburgh school district, and Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, thanked Fogarty for focusing on inequities in the system and highlighting the bright spots.

Esposito-Visgitis pointed out how the COVID-19 epidemic has also magnified the inequities across the district. “More than ever we are not accepting them,” she said.

Jenkins said the inequities that exist in Pittsburgh, particularly in advanced placement and gifted enrollment, exist nationally. She said she appreciated Fogarty’s focus on community collaboration, “It is really what is necessary to support our students.”

The report also looks at the district’s magnet system, which often makes acceptance more open to students from well-resourced families and is quick to eject students who don’t meet discipline and attendance guidelines.

Among the “bright spots,” where school staff is creating positive outcomes for students, is Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill, where third grade reading proficiency scores among Black students have increased from 35% in 2015 to 63% in 2019 under the direction of principal Tamara Sanders-Woods.

Third grade reading proficiency is vital to a student’s future academic success as third grade marks the point in a student’s education where they move from learning to read to the necessity to read in all subjects.

Among other bright spots is South Brook 6-8, in the West Liberty section of Brookline, where the learning growth, as measured by state tests, puts it in the top 15% of schools in the state.

The report also highlights a multifaceted effort to revitalize Perry High School, in the Perry North neighborhood on the North Side, where 77% of students are Black, the same percentage are economically disadvantaged and academic achievement is low.

Perry senior Alyssa Vogel said in the report she and her classmates know they receive less technology and fewer resources because of the school’s small size — just 361 students in the building — and that makes them feel “disrespected and devalued.”

However, for the past two years a collaborative of students, staff and community partners including A+ Schools and One Northside, an initiative of the Buhl Foundation, has been working to re-create Perry as a school that provides a “strong liberal arts foundation” with a chance to earn college credit in high school and offer technical skills that can lead to jobs.

The effort has prompted the district administration to include Perry as one of three high schools targeted in the next phase of its strategic plan.

A continued sore spot in the district is disparate discipline.

Among the 2,331 students who were suspended at least once in 2019-2020, 79% were Black and 12% were white. Districtwide, 52% of students are Black. The report said the 2019-2020 racial disparity in suspensions is “slightly greater” than the previous year.

Of those suspended at least once, 34% had disabilities and 89% were low-income.

Out-of-school suspension rates range from zero at Banksville K-5 in Banksville and Montessori PreK-5 in Friendship to 37% at  Milliones 6-12 in the Hill District. At Milliones, 88%  of students are Black and 89% are economically disadvantaged.

Enrollment in AP classes shows 56% of white students have enrolled in at least one AP course, as compared with 27% of Black students and 4% of Hispanic students.

Similar disparities exist in the gifted program where 66% identified as gifted are white, compared with 18% who are Black, according to the report.

The report also contains a School Choice and Enrollment Guide which walks parents through the Pittsburgh Public Schools system of neighborhood and magnet schools, special education, English language learners services and other programs such as career and technical education. It also explains charter school opportunities.

In showing the opportunities at the district’s high schools, the disparities become glaring.

For instance, CAPA 6-12, a Downtown magnet high school for performing arts which requires auditions for acceptance, has the highest percentage of students enrolling in post-secondary education — 84% — and the highest six-year college completion rate at 60% among the 6-12 and 9-12 secondary schools in the district.

CAPA ties with Science and Technology Academy 6-12 in Oakland, another selective magnet, by offering the most advanced placement courses — 11. Only Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill offers more at 12. That compares with Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood, which offers three AP courses.

The report also provides details on each of the district’s schools and the city’s charter schools, including three-year averages on academic achievement on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams for elementary students and the Keystone exams for secondary students, based on the years 2016-2017 through 2018-2019.  There are no test scores available for 2019-2020.

To read the full report go to

This article was written in collaboration with Pittsburgh Print, which is also publishing a version.

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