School Spacing

We’re digging into the issues behind potential new school closures in Pittsburgh. So far we’ve talked about school size and school utilization. Another key issue we need to understand is school spacing: where schools are located, in which neighborhoods, how far students must travel to get to a school, and population density.

Here is the current map of Pittsburgh schools (click to open a separate window where you can navigate the map):

PPS school map

You can see that we still have a pretty broad distribution of schools in all grade bands. Yet with the last four rounds of closures, some neighborhoods have lost all of their schools. Activists in places like Hazelwood have told us how losing every single school in the area has had a terrible impact on families. Researchers who study nutrition and urban planning call communities without grocery stores “food deserts.” After Hazelwood’s schools closed it also lost its last grocery store, making it both a food desert and a school desert.

Of course we understand that not every neighborhood in Pittsburgh will have its own school. We are way past those days. In fact, because of our unique topography and history, Pittsburgh has 90 recognized neighborhoods, some quite tiny. So I don’t think any of us is arguing that every student in Pittsburgh should literally have a neighborhood school right up the street.

But a comment from a Facebook reader got me thinking about the difference between “neighborhood schools,” and what we might start calling “community schools.” This reader suggested that we shouldn’t be so fixated on the idea of old-fashioned neighborhood schools, saying, “Students in low density suburbs like Fox Chapel don’t have ‘neighborhood’ schools and yet no one seems to complain about the quality of education there.”

This is a valid argument, but the point is that Fox Chapel residents still have community schools. In fact, they have six of them (a high school, a middle school, and four elementary schools). Compare that to our example of Hazelwood, which has a population of 6,407 people, about a thousand more people than Fox Chapel with a population of 5,388, but without a single school. And Hazelwood residents are much less wealthy than Fox Chapel residents: so, for example, fewer people are likely to own cars to drive across the city to be engaged with their children’s education at a distant school.

At the Envisioning Educational Excellence advisory meeting on Monday, our break-out group discussed the idea of “equity and choice” in our schools. The community members at our table were adamant that all families should have a great school in their area. No one thought it must be at the end of the street, but everyone agreed that there is no such thing as “choice” unless there is a reasonably nearby school that offers a full, rich curriculum for every kid. No student should have to go all the way across the city just to receive world language instruction. In fact, rather than putting more resources into creating additional magnet programs spread around the city, our group was fairly vocal about its belief that families want great community schools.

Superintendent Dr. Linda Lane told the Post-Gazette “she was struck by how one small discussion group noted that equity is more important than choice.” That is exactly what we said. Except that our community schools must be both equitable and excellent. She noted, “That’s pretty powerful.” I couldn’t agree more. Dr. Lane also acknowledged our group’s “concerns for communities that feel disenfranchised because they don’t have a school” and recognized that we “spoke of a need for stability and consistency, not only in keeping schools open but also in keeping the same principal.” [Post-Gazette, 5-14-13]

So as we continue to think about potential school closings in Pittsburgh, I suggest we think more expansively about community schools. These will necessarily be spaced farther apart than the neighborhood schools of yore, but as we look at our maps and plan, we need to consider what happens to our communities when we create school deserts.

To see this process up close, please Get on the Bus! Yinzercation is co-sponsoring a Rolling Rally through Pittsburgh this Sunday to highlight this conversation about school closure. It will be fun, educational, and productive – so please plan to join us. (Really! Have you been to Hazelwood? This is your chance to see some important parts of Pittsburgh with a tour guide.) The school buses will make several pickups, so hop on at a stop near you:

  • Weil School – 3PM
  • Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (across from Obama School) – 3:30PM
  • Manchester School – 3:45PM
  • Burgwin School (now closed) – 4:15PM

We will end the tour with a big action at the former Schenley High School in Oakland at 5PM. More  information and RSVP on our Facebook event page. This is a new group of partners working together called the Pittsburgh Great Schools Coalition, and includes the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, PIIN, Action United, One Pittsburgh, AFSCME, Yinzercation, SEIU Healthcare PA, and the Hill District Education Council. Come be a part of the conversation about school closure and community schools.

2 thoughts on “School Spacing

  1. Fox Chapel SD includes Fox Chapel borough (5388) but also Aspinwall (2801) and Ohara (8407). So a more accurate comparison would be 4 elementary schools per 16,596 residents – a little more reasonable. I think your point remains, however. Do you have numbers on $$ spent per student per school district? To me that is the bigger disparity.

    • Thanks for that clarification. I don’t have the per-pupil spending handy for our suburban districts, but PPS has put together a slide comparing us to those districts they consider to be our peer group (though as you will recall, I have some issues with how we define this peer group). Pittsburgh is still spending far more than other districts: over $20,000 per student, while the peer districts average close to $13,000. We are spending more across the board in nearly every category (it’s not as simple as slashing one thing to fix this problem). The administration estimates that we need to reduce the per-student difference by at least $2,000 to address the deficit.

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