Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Critical View from the Inside: Pittsburgh Public Schools

Our public schools are rarely the topic of discussion when it comes to good strategy, using data, and internal analysis, but our Pittsburgh Public Schools are doing just that. Tonight I attended the Hazelwood neighborhood community meeting and was able to sit in on presentations by four Pittsburgh Public School principals. I was really impressed with the openness and progress of the local schools. All four principals talked candidly about a problem that is often not discussed: the achievement and behavior gap. Hazelwood, a low-income neighborhood in Pittsburgh, does not have its own school. Instead, their children attend schools in neighboring (and not so neighboring) communities, where they are often viewed as outsiders.

The presentation for Pittsburgh Minadeo Elementary School included a graph that showed the 2010-2011 school year referral count at 500 for black students, compared to 40 for white students. The principal talked about their strategy to make black students feel welcome and make sure they are being engaged rather than kicking them out on the street. Rather than making students from Hazelwood like an outsider in their own school, the principal has created specific partnerships with community organizations to bring the neighborhood to the school. How’s it been working? To date, the referral count for black students is under 200.

Pittsburgh Brashear High School is looking at the institutional racism in their school where the majority of middle-class white teachers are affecting low-income black students. There has been great research and implementation in how to create a shared culture with such a diverse group of students, so that expectations are high for all students, and students who need more resources receive them. “Equitable” does not always achieve “equity.”

Pittsburgh Allerdice High School is also having great success with its most at-risk students. From 2009-2010 to 2010-2011, the percentage of black students who tested at or above proficiency in reading increased from 37% to 53%. Also impressive from my perspective is the fact that they decreased the “below basic” group from 48% to 22%. Math scores for black students saw similar increased. In the last three years since the principal took over, they have decreased the number of suspensions of black students by 50%.

I am inspired to see our public school leadership talking so openly about alarming trends and the increasing achievement gap in our country between white students and students of color. And I am more inspired by the action they are taking, the support they are seeking from the community, and the results they are seeing. It is only when organizations and institutions look critically at themselves that they can begin to move forward. How can we bring this thinking to our other urban institutions?

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