School Utilization

Last week we talked about school size – a key issue in the debate over whether to close schools, which ones, and how many. I made the argument that we should probably not fear somewhat larger schools, simply on the basis of size, if they come with adequate resources for the students in every building. [See “School Size”]

But school size alone doesn’t tell us much. We need to know how each building is being utilized. Last night, the Pittsburgh Public School administration shared some new data with the Envisioning Educational Excellence advisory group that sheds some light on this very issue. Here’s what I learned. [All data from PPS Envisioning Update]

To see how we stack up against other school districts, PPS compared itself to several other Pennsylvania cities that it considers comparable in terms of racial composition, poverty rates, and other factors. In the following graph, the administration makes the case that our school size average is “far below” those peer districts.

PPS slide 20

I have a couple issues with this data. First, I am uncomfortable comparing Pittsburgh to the towns PPS selected as “peers”: Allentown, Erie, Hazleton, Lancaster, Reading, and Scranton. While the demographics might be similar, it strikes me as foolish to benchmark ourselves against a place like Reading, for instance, now rated the second poorest city in the entire country. If they have enormous schools, that might not necessarily be what I want for our children in the Steel City.

Why not compare Pittsburgh, as I did last week, to the Upper St. Clairs and Fox Chapels of the world? In fact, let’s make our comparisons local – since this is how the public views things. The comment I hear all the time is, “If Mt. Lebanon can do it, why can’t Pittsburgh … ?” I would love to see some local data that illustrates how PPS is doing in comparison to those districts around here – both great and struggling. I was far more convinced that larger school sizes might be OK for our kids when looking at our own wealthy suburbs and seeing how we stack up (and we do appear small, at least compared to the two districts I analyzed).

Furthermore, the PPS graph above compares all schools together – elementary, middle, high schools, K-8s, everything. This is not a useful metric, since we know that elementary schools tend to be much smaller than high schools. Though it can be difficult to compare apples to apples – since, for instance, some districts do not have K-8 schools or 6-12 schools – we need to see that data broken out by grade band.

Next, the district shared a graph on school utilization. This is more illuminating, but not without problems.

PPS slide 21

According to this graphic, the majority of our schools are in the 60-80% or over 80% full range. In fact, three times as many schools (35) are in this range as those in the 40-60% or less than 40% full range (15 schools). Yet, the graph is titled, “Pittsburgh has Under-Utilized School Space throughout the City.” Of course, this chart does not provide geographic data, so we can’t see how this actually maps onto the city (though the district did provide the raw data, see below). I also don’t feel separating schools by type (magnet vs. feeder) tells us anything, but the district is clearly trying to determine what parent preferences are based on building utilization.

Perhaps the most significant thing we have learned is the way that PPS defines adequate utilization. With increased “target class sizes” for this year, the administration is now calling anything under 30 students at the 6-12 and 9-12 level under-enrolled. Parents in the grassroots movement have been very clear that they would like to see smaller class sizes, not larger. In fact, looking at the average class sizes for our various school types, it seems to me that only our 6-12 and high schools might be considered on the small side:

PPS slide 27

However, the district suggests in another slide that, “the under-capacity issue is most pronounced at the 6-8 and 6-12 level,” where 5 of the 12 schools are enrolled at less than 50%:

PPS slide 31

Right now, using those increased “target” class sizes, the district is arguing that a quarter of our schools are at less than half capacity. I just want to caution again that this “half empty” school narrative is a seductive one that goes over quite well with those ready to slash school budgets and implement privatization plans, as we have seen all too clearly in Chicago. So far, I have not heard our administration officials using this line and I am grateful.

But it does appear they are ready to argue that our average school is a third-empty. By their measurement, the average school is at 67% capacity (or just over two-thirds full). My own children’s school is rated at 69% capacity – which would probably come as a surprise to any parent who has ever walked in the building and found it nearly bursting at the seams with students. I don’t see classrooms with a third of the desks empty. In fact, this is the school where my sixth-grader has 39 students in his math class. And using the district’s numbers, we would need 1,036 students to fill the school to capacity. Are you kidding? Colfax with over 1,000 kids?

I leave you with the raw data from the district to mull over. One note here: the right-hand column lists the percentage of students from a school’s feeder pattern who attend the school. This is not the percentage of students at the school who are from the feeder, but rather a measurement of what we might call the “catchment rate” (there’s probably a technical term for this) – the percentage of all eligible students who live in the catchment area who choose to attend that school. This is not a terribly useful number without a sense of why parents are choosing the schools that they do. A public school with a low catchment rate may be in an area with a large proportion of private schools yet still be great; or a school with a low catchment rate might indicate that families are high-tailing it out when given the option. This data doesn’t tell us.

What do you think about school utilization in Pittsburgh?

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One thought on “School Utilization

  1. Pittsburgh Public Schools should have given you the contract to envision the future. Your analysis is much better than what we are getting from the current contractor! Maybe that is “by design”?
    I hope they give us the additional data we asked for, like the “catchment rate” for magnet schools.
    Regarding class size, Mark R. made a great point on Facebook–some classrooms can’t physically hold 30 kids. Not a consideration I guess?

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