School Board Santa

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.

9 thoughts on “School Board Santa

  1. What a victory for urban education! The work that you’ve done here on ‘Yinzercation and the work of the GPSPGH coalition may literally be some of the best grassroots organizing this country has ever seen in the fight against corporate education “reform.” I am hopeful that district administration will work with the community and the board to creatively address the challenges we face.

    I was among those teachers that brought up the issue of recruiting teachers for hard-to-staff schools and am opposed to TFA. Our system, especially the evaluation system, is set up to discourage teachers to work at these schools. Couple that reality with Act 82, and you have a perfect storm that drives teachers away from rather than towards challenging working environments (not that there are any schools that are free from challenges). Last night Dr. Lane mentioned that no one had volunteered to go to these schools, though many of us voiced our concerns about the TFA contract. I believe we need to be creative and brave when suggesting other solutions, but last night was a necessary first step.

    • I second Jon’s kudos to GPSPGH, Yinzercation, and everyone working against corporate ‘reform’ here locally. And let’s also thank Diane Ravitch for her support. I hope this is a sign of change in the way think about public education. Like Diane has said, public education is a civic responsibility. And for me, public education is means for a community to take care of itself. It’s time for local educational leaders to start treating it that way. -jms

  2. Pingback: “Look at That, Pittsburgh! We Did It!” | Diane Ravitch's blog

  3. I just hope that the children attending the schools where the TFA members would have taught will be taught by bright, energetic, creative, ambitious teachers. I don’t understand TFA bashing. Before Wendy Kopp, no one talked about urban education or considered that underserved kids could learn. I don’t think “underserved” was even a term. Kids of color were seen as “bad”: badly behaved, bad students who turned good schools “bad.” Kopp had vision no one else had, and instead of being hailed as a visionary she is maligned and castigated by the same professional educators who use poverty as an excuse for not teaching these kids. Too bad for the kids in Pittsburgh, who could have been taught by vigorous, intelligent teachers instead of by people who are looking to score certain political points or to advance their own agenda. While you guys are crowing over your so-called victory, the kids are undoubtedly the ones who will suffer.

    • Robin,

      Who’s to say these schools aren’t already staffed by such ‘bright, energetic, creative, ambitious teachers’? Or that they can’t be staffed in the future by our local universities and a better local and nationwide recruitment process by the district? Also, I’m not sure you’re aware, but before Ms. Kopp’s undergraduate project that became TFA, there were real educational reformers (teachers, researchers, writers) interested in and working to better urban education: Jonathan Kozol, Paulo Freire, Peter McLaren, Henry A. Giroux, Nel Noddings, Michael Apple, and Diane Ravitch come to mind. As both a PPS teacher and parent, I’m pretty confident that my students would call me a ‘vigorous, intelligent’ teacher and that my own children (and those in other schools) already have and will continue to have like-minded people in their classrooms without the ‘political points’ and ‘agenda’ that would come with inviting TFA into our schools. – jms

    • Spoken like a true TFA soldier. Perhaps you and other TFA CM never thought about urban education before but it has certainly always been a topic in authentic educational circles.

  4. You’ve given me goosebumps, this is so grand to hear. Thank you for *my* holiday present! Thank you, Pittsburgh. I always loved your city of rivers! 🙂 Go Pittsburgh! Take back our schools for our children; your children — and your dedicated teachers too.

  5. Pingback: Teach For Canada can only make things worse | No need to raise your hand

  6. Pingback: Teach For Canada can only make things worse | voicEd.ca

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