It felt like Christmas came early last night for the education justice movement. The Pittsburgh school board, which includes four of nine newly elected members, presented students with two lovely gifts: instead of handing out turtledoves or partridges in pear trees (really impractical this time of year, if you think about it), the board voted to rescind a contract with Teach for America and to stop the process of closing Woolslair elementary.
The community had raised significant questions about the impact Teach for America (TFA) would have on students, teachers, and our schools. [See “Six Questions for Teach for America” and “Too Few Answers”] And the community also spoke out loud and clear about the damage caused by past school closures, with almost 1,000 people responding to a survey conducted by volunteers earlier this fall going door-to-door in neighborhoods all over the city. [See “What Pittsburghers are Really Saying About School Closures”]
Then over 1,400 people signed a petition last month asking the board to wait a few weeks until the new members were seated to make decisions about contracts and school closures that would affect the district for years to come. Despite this impressive showing of public interest – and passionate, evidence-filled testimony from parents, students, and teachers alike – the outgoing board went forward, splitting 6-3 in favor of both the TFA contract and closing Woolslair. Last night the new board reversed both decisions: this time 6 members voted to rescind the TFA contract (with two opposed and one abstention), and they voted 8-1 to halt the school closure hearing process for Woolslair.
That means there will not be any school closures in the 2014-15 academic year, though the district has already said it will soon be presenting a slate of 5-10 additional schools for the board to consider closing. While the city’s population has stabilized, and Kindergarten enrollment is way up this year, with a budget deficit looming the district is looking at school closures to stave off fiscal crisis. So we still have a lot of work to do together to find bigger solutions that help all students and all our communities. (That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to be working on Mayor-elect Peduto’s transition team, looking at collaboration between PPS and the city.)
And we still have real work to do to make all our schools supportive environments for master teachers, so they will stay with the students who need them most. I recently spoke with a former PPS high school math teacher who transferred to a K-8 this year to get away from the chaos caused by poor leadership and years of “transformation” plans – this is a very real problem. Yet in the past few weeks I’ve also heard from numerous teachers who would absolutely love to work in our “hard to staff” schools, including another former high school math teacher who was offered an early buy-out in the last round of cuts and now can’t work for the district.
Still another former (fully credentialed) PPS substitute teacher told me, “It’s indecent and disingenuous” that the district claims there are no willing and passionate teachers, when it’s not “plumbing each school’s killer subs for ‘hard to fill’ positions.” This teacher said, “Had a … position been offered to me at Westinghouse or some other school I would have got down on my knees and thanked God, crying, and accepted it with all the prodigious passion in my heart and soul.” Now those are the people we need to work at recruiting and retaining in our schools!
For now, let’s focus on the magic of the season. These two board decisions stand as real victories for our grassroots movement. In fact, TFA’s regional communications director said, “This is the first time a school board has reversed a decision to bring the program into a district.” [Post-Gazette, 12-18-13] Indeed, education historian Diane Ravitch noted that the Pittsburgh vote “was remarkable because it is one of the few times–maybe the first time–that a school board rejected a TFA contract and recognized how controversial it is to hire young inexperienced teachers for the neediest students.” [DianeRavitch.net, 12-18-13]
Look at that, Pittsburgh. We did it.
With the board playing Santa last night, the gift it gave to children was the promise to fight for a great education for every student. And to the education justice movement, it gave the precious gift of hope. There’s hope for the future of Pittsburgh public education with students, parents, teachers, community members, board members, and our district education professionals working together. It’s hard to put wrapping paper on it, but this will be the one present everyone remembers this year.