It seems like everyone is talking about the Pittsburgh Public School district’s plan to close more schools. City Council. The Post-Gazette editorial board. The region’s leaders. But what about ordinary Pittsburghers? Where are their voices? What do they have to say?
It turns out, local people have a lot to say. But you have to ask them. And if you really want to learn something, you have to listen.
Now to be fair, the PPS administration has made some attempts to engage the public in its “Envisioning” strategic planning process, which we now know will include a list of proposed school closures. The district had a few parents meet one-on-one with their consultants and there was a handful of parents (and one student that I met) on the Envisioning advisory board. The district also held a few open houses for the public to see presentations on the Envisioning process; conducted an on-line survey (largely focused on “school choice”); and deployed a new on-line tool to solicit feedback.
But these measures can hardly be considered adequate community engagement. Particularly when we are talking about something as drastic as closing schools and potentially causing real harm to more Pittsburgh communities. Most of these attempts to engage the public required access to the internet, were limited to just a few people, or used various exercises and meeting formats (such as tightly scoped break-out sessions) to limit authentic, “messy” dialogue.
Unfortunately, the two outside consulting companies hired by the district for $2.4 million to advise the Envisioning process – Bellwether and FSG – don’t seem to care much about what our community actually thinks. In fact, in their winning proposal to the district, they explained they will “conduct … community engagement events as necessary to solicit input into and ensure a full understanding of, and enhanced buy-in to key reform initiatives….” [Bellwether and FSG proposal, p. 13] So is engaging the community about getting their input, or about making sure people understand the reforms the district is promoting and increasing their buy-in?
Those are completely different goals. One assumes that people have something important to offer the process, and the other assumes that people are ill-informed, need to be tutored into a proper understanding of reforms, and brought around to the district’s way of thinking. Bellwether and FSG make it clear which side they stand on: a few pages later in their proposal, they explain that they will look for best practices from around the country on “Changing … community attitudes” so PPS will learn “how reform-minded urban districts have driven change in … community attitudes, values, and buy-in.” [Bellwether and FSG proposal, p. 17]
Think about the arrogance of that statement. This is not about listening to what the community thinks, or learning from the collective wisdom and experience of the people of Pittsburgh. Instead, Bellwether and FSG want to shape our attitudes and values for us. It’s one thing to talk about getting community buy-in for a strategic plan – that’s important – but we don’t need others to change our attitudes and tell us what to think, thank you very much.
By contrast, this summer our new Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition developed a community survey to start to find out what local people really think. This was truly a grassroots effort. (I can vouch for this: I spent many hours working on this survey – and so did a lot of other people.) Volunteers went door-to-door in neighborhoods all over the city, including some of those most affected by past school closures. We surveyed almost 1,000 people (920 to be exact, and mostly in person), making sure we were listening to those in some of our poorest neighborhoods, and our communities of color.
This involved a whole lot of standing on porches and in living rooms and sitting at kitchen tables and having long, honest, conversations about our schools. No one paid us a dime. And we heard from those whose voices rarely make it to the district’s ears. We talked to parents, students, teachers, and community members. Over 62% of our respondents were African American.
Now, if you want to hear what the community really has to say, you need to read the report based on the results of this survey. (I’ll spare you the details on how many more hours went into this document, but perhaps Bellwether and FSG would like to split some of their portion of that $2.4 million with us volunteers?) This week I will be sharing highlights of the community report with you, starting with what people said about school closings in Pittsburgh. [GPS report: Creating a District of Last Resort]
Given PPS’s extensive prior history of closing schools, we asked survey respondents for their own experiences with the closings’ effects. We found that the overwhelming experience of Pittsburgh residents with school closings has been negative (see graphic below). For every person who said that closing schools had improved education quality, more than 7 said it had worsened quality. The results were similar on how the school closings affected a range of other factors. Nearly 13 respondents said neighborhood stability got worse, for every 1 respondent who said it got better. Respondents also said the following factors got worse: student health and safety (7 to 1); family and community connections to schools (8 to 1); commuting time to school (8 to 1); peer relationships (8 to 1); and the educational opportunities for students of color (6 to 1), low-income students (7 to 1), English language learners (6 to 1) and students with disabilities (5 to 1). Across all categories, the vast majority of respondents had negative experiences with previous school closings in PPS.
To better understand these experiences, we asked respondents to share what effects they had seen or experienced personally. Their responses, a sampling of which are presented below, should be a must-read for any policymaker contemplating closing a school. In the aggregate, they present a comprehensive and insightful portrait of the many devastating effects school closings often produce, including the harm they cause to students, families, teachers, education quality, safety, neighborhood stability, equity, and the overall well-being of the school district and the city.
We also asked respondents for their views on PPS possibly closing additional schools. Nearly 9 out of 10 people either disapproved or strongly disapproved of that approach.