It’s almost the New Year and time for making lists. As we say goodbye to 2014, here is our list of the top ten education justice victories of the year:
1. Tom Wolf elected Governor. In an election year that saw few bright spots for public education around the country, Pennsylvania stood out with a stellar win. Many folks worked for years on this governor’s race. Yinzercation itself started three years ago in response to Governor Corbett’s disastrous budget cuts and members of our collective have logged thousands of hours, collaborating with others around the state, to elect a pro-public education leader. One of the highlights of the campaign was our Education Debate, which allowed voters to hear from all of the Democratic candidates in-depth on education issues. Co-hosted with PIIN and broadcast by media partner WPXI around the state, the debate attracted 500 people in the live audience and included questions submitted by public school students presented by a community panel. [“Debate by the Numbers”]
2. Education ranked #1 voter issue in PA. As a result of the incredible work of our grassroots movement, education jumped for the first time into the top spot on voters’ list of concerns. Even if Tom Wolf had not won, this would have been a major achievement in itself. Pushing education to the front of the public agenda was a bottom up effort, the result of countless trips to the state capitol, community meetings, rallies, demonstrations, letters to the editor, op eds, blog posts, TV appearances, media interviews, and more. [For just one 2014 example of our movement in action, see “Taking it to Harrisburg”]
3. Featured in Bob Herbert’s new book. The award winning, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert came to Pittsburgh to conduct research for his book, Losing our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. He was so taken with our local movement that he wound up writing three whole chapters on public education! He then graciously came back to the ‘burgh so we could host the national launch of his book. [“10 Reasons to See Bob Herbert”] The event, moderated by Post-Gazette columnist and editorial board member Tony Norman, drew over 300 people and generated more media buzz about education justice. [“Celebrating Hope, Action, and Change”]
4. Rolled back high-stakes testing. The Pittsburgh Public Schools agreed to reduce high-stakes standardized testing for students in grades K-5, returning 41.5 periods of instructional time to our children. That comes to 33 hours for real learning rather than test taking, and does not even count the associated reduction in test-prep. [“33 More Hours for Learning”] Although there is far more work to be done, this was a great first step, and the direct result of conversations we hosted in the community, in social media, and with the school board and the school district. As part of that work, we sponsored the Pittsburgh premiere of the documentary “Standardized.” [“Millions Spent, No Results”] Afterwards, we worked with one audience member, Dr. Greg Taranto – a Pennsylvania middle school teacher of the year award winner – who wrote an op-ed that went viral. [“Slay the Testing Beast,” Post-Gazette, 3-26-14] We developed nine “Strategies to Reduce High Stakes Testing,” and had two articles published on testing in the Washington Post. [“High Stakes for Students” and “Children are Not Guinea Pigs”]
5. Saved PE. After we raised questions about proposed cuts to physical education requirements and the community spoke out at a school board hearing, the district decided not to halve the number of required high school PE credits. This would have effectively made gym a required class for only first and second year students, allegedly to free up time for test prep and alleviate some scheduling conflicts. But it would have also likely led to further reductions in teaching staff and exacerbated inequity in our schools. Not to mention the fact that our children are not getting nearly enough exercise as it is and this would have been a step backwards in the fight against childhood obesity. [“Cutting PE” and “Score! Save!”]
6. Launched community schools campaign. The coalition Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh released a report outlining a vision for public education in the city and calling for the implementation of a community schools model. The group then got a grant from the Heinz Foundations to take over thirty people to a national conference in Cincinnati to learn more about how community schools work around the country. The conference delegation included school board members, community leaders, parents, and representatives from the mayor’s office. GPS then hosted a community meeting to continue the conversation in the city. [“Reporting Back on Community Schools”] The idea of community schools appears to be gaining wide support and is even the centerpiece of a major grant proposal submitted this year by the district. This was a big step forward for a new way of thinking about our public schools, which could tremendously benefit students, families, and entire communities.
7. Heard many new student voices. Students are inspiring. And when they speak about their education, adults listen. This was a great year for lifting up emerging student voices: most recently, Pittsburgh Allderdice students organized and testified at the school board about the need for libraries and professional librarians. We also worked with Pittsburgh CAPA students who organized their peers and presented moving testimony to the board about cuts to arts education in the district. Even the Washington Post was impressed and picked up their story! [“All They Want for Christmas … is Art Education”] Earlier in the year, TeenBloc students successfully introduced a Student Bill of Rights into the district’s Code of Student Conduct. Students were also key leaders in the planning of our Education Debate, spoke at our rallies, and participated in our trip to Harrisburg, among other actions.
8. Renewed focus on equitable discipline. As outlined in an ACLU report last year, inequality in school discipline and policing policies disproportionately impacts students of color, students with disabilities, and students living in our most struggling communities. This process of student push-out feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. In a win for Pittsburgh students, the Education Law Center worked with the district to develop changes to the Code of Student Conduct that will eliminate “zero tolerance” policies and provide protection for students of all sexual and gender identity expressions.
9. Mayor’s Task Force on Education. After a delayed start and some rocky process issues, Mayor Peduto’s Task Force on Education laid some solid groundwork for collaboration between the city and the school district. While some feared the mayor and city council were overstepping their authority to look at school matters, many in the community supported this effort to imagine big solutions and opportunities for new partnerships that can benefit students and entire communities alike. I was honored to serve on the Task Force and remain optimistic about this chance to “think outside the box” and move beyond the silos that prevent cooperation on such tangled issues as poverty, racism, housing segregation, neighborhood gentrification, and financial challenges. A vibrant, healthy Pittsburgh requires great public schools for all students and the school district cannot address all of the issues impacting student learning on its own. I am pleased that City Council plans to make the Task Force into a standing commission to continue this work. [“Mayor’s Task Force on Education”]
10. Pittsburgh connected to national education justice work. This was a banner year for our city to shine on the national education justice scene, which itself is growing with a number of new organizations and coalitions. For example, three Yinzercation steering committee members represented Pittsburgh, speaking on panels at the inaugural conference of the Network for Public Education in Austin back in March. [“We Are Many”] Yinzercation helped to launch the national Education Bloggers Network, which now has over 200 members. Through GPS we participated in a national meeting of the new coalition, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, in D.C. and also coordinated a national week of action to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which included our local rally at Freedom Corner in the Hill District. [“Still Black and White After Brown”] In addition, a diverse group of local education organizations and leaders collaborated on a pretty fantastic bid to bring the national Free Minds, Free People education justice conference to Pittsburgh. We were one of the final two locations under consideration – and while Oakland, CA won, our proposal brought together groups that don’t always agree for some serious social justice work together. Last but not least, we continued to have many of our articles picked up by the national media and Pittsburgh’s education justice work was featured prominently in a several national stories.
Happy New Year! May 2015 bring many more wins for students, our public schools, and education justice.