Sunshine and Happiness

The end of the school year is almost here and all we want to think about is sunshine and happy things. Fortunately, there is much good news to report! So in the spirit of summer vacation and all things wonderful, here is our top six list of public education goodness:

Good Stuff #1: Election Results!

I am still on a high from the primary election last week. As our very own Kathy Newman wrote on Diane Ravitch’s national blog, Pittsburgh voters:

“delivered a resounding message that they support the broad platform of education justice for the Pittsburgh Public schools. This platform includes: Community Schools—schools which provide wrap-around, nutrition and psychological services to needy children during the school day and beyond, restorative justice rather than discipline and punish, more resources for nurses, librarians and counselors, a push back against over-testing, and a district budget that is determined by what students need to succeed rather than austerity, closing schools, and right-sizing. … Each of the four school board candidates who ran on this platform won the Democratic primary nomination, and they are all but assured to win in the fall, and to begin serving on the school board in late 2015.”

The winning candidates are the District 2 incumbent, Regina Holley, a former Pittsburgh principal and strong advocate for our students and schools. I have great respect for Dr. Holley and it has been an honor working with and getting to know her these past few years. In the hotly contested District 4 race, Lynda Wrenn won in a landslide victory, demonstrating the power of grassroots coalition building, with parents, teachers, and community members providing an army of “boots on the ground” to get out the word. Ms. Wrenn is the mother of two PPS graduates and two current students, has served as a PTO president, worked with the district on numerous task forces, has a master’s in teaching from Chatham, and is deeply involved in the community.

In District 6 the city gains a new champion for education justice with Moira Kaleida, a community leader who is active with Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh and mother of two young children just starting in the public schools. District 8 also endorsed a candidate running on a strong equity platform: Kevin Carter, the founder and CEO of the Adonai Center for Black Males, a nonprofit that helps young men transition from high school to college or trade school, and from higher education to the workplace. In debates this spring and in public statements and personal conversations, I’ve been very impressed with both Ms. Kaleida’s and Mr. Carter’s understanding of the issues facing public education.

These four candidates will join four other school board members elected in 2013 who were also backed by the education justice movement. That makes Pittsburgh’s board a rarity among large U.S. cities: democratically elected and supportive of evidence-backed policies to make all our schools the places all of our children deserve.

A final note about the elections: congratulations to our colleague Helen Gym, who won a huge primary victory for Philadelphia City Council running on a public education platform! This is absolutely amazing news for Philly and for all of us in Pennsylvania.

Good Stuff #2: Testing Resistance!

Mary King made big waves here and nationally when she refused to give high-stakes-tests to her students this spring. [Post-Gazette, 5-23-15] Ms. King teaches English language learners at Pittsburgh Colfax and decided that she had to take a stand as a conscientious objector after witnessing the harm done to her students. [See our “Brave Teachers Speak Out About Testing”] The Post-Gazette article about her was the #1 most shared story in last Saturday’s paper, and was also hilariously featured in Gary Rotstein’s Morning File on Monday. [Post-Gazette, 5-25-15] Diane Ravitch even named Mary King to her national honor roll!

As Pittsburgh teacher Kipp Dawson points out in a letter to the editor today, Mary King is in good company (despite the paper’s characterization of her taking a “lone stand”):

“Indeed, Mary King’s action in refusing to administer the state tests to her ESL students is unique, courageous and pioneering. However, far from standing alone, she is part of a growing movement of parents, teachers and students who are standing up against the egregious testing mania which is part of the current attacks on public schools. As a middle-school teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, it is my experience that it would be hard to find a teacher who does not have similar stories about how the testing frenzy has hurt individual students, let alone how it has been a central part of the destruction of real teaching and learning in our schools.

“Just last week Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, sent a letter to parents in which he says, among other things, “… we are asking our students to do something that’s entirely unfair: To spend weeks and weeks filling in bubbles, taking standardized tests and having their entire educational ambition directed toward passing them. This is not what public education was intended to do, nor should do. … I believe in very high standards for our students. I believe in accountability. I do believe that tests can be a good thing. But not the way we are being forced, by the government, to give them.”

“Many of us would welcome such leadership from Pittsburgh Public Schools, but we are not waiting for it. Saluting Mary King, and working alongside her, many of us teachers, parents and students keep working to help people stand up against the testing mania, along with all of the other undermining that the “reformers” are attempting to do to our public schools.” [Post-Gazette, 5-29-15]

Indeed, the movement against the overuse and misuse of high-stakes-testing is growing exponentially here in Southwest Pennsylvania. As one simple measure of interest in this issue, my piece last month on “The Religious Reasons My Kids Won’t Be Taking the Test” has become our second most read post of all time; was shared by readers from this blog over 2,000 times; reached over 26,000 people from our Facebook page; and was re-published by the Washington Post and

Good Stuff #3: Listen to Teachers!

If Mary King’s courageous stand against high-stakes-testing tells us anything it’s that we should be listening to teachers. Scholastic recently surveyed all of the State Teacher of the Year winners. These top educators have been recognized by each state as the very best in the nation, and not surprisingly, they tend to agree on how we should be approaching education reform: the report noted, “Teachers see issues like poverty, family stress and other out-of-school barriers to learning greatly affecting student academic success, and they prioritize things like anti-poverty initiatives, early learning and other community supports and services for funding.”

Not a mention in here of testing students more, or more “rigor,” or “standards,” or “firing bad teachers.” Nope. Listen to their recommendations about what actually works for students: “If these teachers could choose where to focus education funding in order to have the highest impact on student learning, their top priorities would be: Anti-poverty initiatives, early learning, reducing barriers to learning (access to wrap-around services, healthcare, etc.), and professional development/learning.” [Scholastic 2015 Survey] Sounds like our education justice platform, no?

Good Stuff #4: Governor Wolf!

Oh, this Governor. He wants to put more money into the public education budget! He’s going around the state lobbying for early childhood education rather than more prisons. [Post-Gazette, 5-26-15] He even sent a sharply worded letter to the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which opposes restoring the budget cuts to public schools, accusing business leaders of putting “oil and gas special interests” before the interests of our children. [Post-Gazette, 5-19-15] What is he thinking? Happily, he is doing exactly what we asked him to do when we elected him with a clear mandate to support public education. We still have plenty of work to do with legislators who do not think schools and kids should come first. But what a refreshing change of leadership from the very top. And we did this!

Good Stuff #5: Lobbying to End School Push-Out!

On Tuesday, our coalition Great Public Schools Pittsburgh held a rally before the school board meeting to highlight school push-out. Students of color and students with special education needs are disproportionately impacted by school suspensions and other practices that push kids out of school and, too often, into the prison pipeline. For example, last year African-American students, who comprise 54% of the Pittsburgh student body, received over three-quarters (77%) of the district’s suspensions.

Our very own Pam Harbin has been leading a GPS working group aimed at developing recommendations to address this inequity that has life-long consequences for affected students. This week, we called on the district to commit to the following:

  • Adopt support-­based, district-wide disciplinary policies that move away from exclusionary discipline practices in favor of a comprehensive restorative justice approach.
  • Revise the Student Code of Conduct to divide the levels of infractions for misbehavior into five (5) levels. Out­-of-­school suspensions are not an option for the first two levels and expulsion is only an option for the fifth level. Remove option of permanent expulsion.
  • Further revise the Student Code of Conduct to include a glossary/index that defines every misconduct offense, guidance approach and possible disciplinary responses in student/caregiver friendly language. The Student Code of Conduct must be translated for non­-English speaking families.
  • Place a moratorium on out-­of-­school suspensions/expulsions for our youngest students, preK­5th grade, with nonviolent misconduct.
  • Assign, in every school, at least one full­time counselor or social worker whose primary job is to coordinate appropriate interventions and support for students.
  • Provide PPS police officers and security with the proper and necessary training on topics to meet the varying needs of officers working with youth.
  • Publicly report suspension and expulsion data at monthly School Board Legislative meetings broken down by grade, race, and disability category.

The effort received considerable press coverage from WESA, KDKA Radio and KDKA TV, KQV, WTAE TV, WPXI TV, the Post-Gazette, and the Courier. That’s pretty incredible! Here are some photos from the event:

Post-Gazette, print edition, 5-27-15

Post-Gazette, print edition, 5-27-15

Good Stuff #6: More Equity Work!

I am delighted to announce that starting Monday, I have a new job. I will be the inaugural Director of the new Women’s Institute at Chatham University. I also have a faculty appointment and will continue teaching. I will be leading efforts to focus on gender equity through education, research, and outreach – both on campus and in the larger community. I am thrilled that Chatham is continuing its commitment to gender equity and women’s leadership and am excited to be a part of this crucial work. I don’t know how much time I will have for blogging as I settle into the new position, but will certainly remain engaged in our education justice movement. As feminism has taught us, systems of power and oppression overlap; our fight for justice and equity in public education is intimately connected to the fight against racism, poverty, homophobia, sexism, and gender discrimination. I can’t wait to get to work!

Education Justice Platform

Our coalition, Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, has just released an important education justice platform. See below for the short version, or click here for the full version. The six organizations of the coalition worked together to develop this platform to help educate and inform school board candidates and other education advocates about the specific issues facing our schools in anticipation of this spring’s primary election – when four of nine school board positions will be on the ballot.

The GPS education justice platform calls on candidates running for school board to commit to the following:

  • full funding for the PPS schools our children deserve
  • charter school accountability
  • sustainable community schools
  • welcoming and inclusive teaching and learning environments
  • support for educators who help our children learn and grow
  • universal early childhood education
  • less testing, more learning
  • transparency, accountability and collaboration

Do you care about these issues? Please come to our GPS Town Hall Forum this Wednesday! April 29th from 5:30 – 7:30 pm at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Hicks Memorial Chapel (616 N Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206). Kevin Gavin from WESA will be our moderator. This is your chance to ask the school board candidates about where they stand on education justice issues. GPS will then use the education justice platform to score the candidates. Please come, ask questions, and be a part of this incredibly important election for our city.

GPS_Final Platform_page1 GPS_Final Platform_page2

Stop the Push Out

In Pittsburgh, students of color are 2.5 times more likely to be suspended than white students. Four out of every ten black students are suspended at least one time. And suspension is just one of the policies, practices, and procedures that “push out” students, making them less likely to graduate – a serious, and life altering outcome that feeds the “school to prison pipeline” and disproportionately impacts students of color and those with disabilities. [Beyond Zero Tolerance, ACLU report, 2013]

After meeting with parents all over the city, the Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition has made school push-out one of its primary areas of focus. GPS is partnering with the Education Law Center, the Center for Third World Organizing, and other organizations to host a conversation about school push out and discuss what they will be doing this year to tackle the problem. Please join us:

Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015
5:30 PM Dinner, 6PM Meeting
Sci-Tech Academy (107 Thackeray Ave., Oakland)

GPS Push Out Community Meeting

Mayor’s Task Force on Education

I was honored earlier this year to be asked to serve on Mayor Peduto’s Task Force on Education. That group just wrapped up its fourth meeting last night and many folks have been asking how it’s going, so here’s a quick report.

I am optimistic by nature and was excited about the opportunity to get the Pittsburgh Public School administration, board members, and educators together with elected representatives from City Council, the mayor’s office, and community members to think about how to improve our schools and neighborhoods. Meeting process and organizational issues have beaten back some of that optimism, but I remain hopeful that (perhaps small) steps towards progress can be made.

The Task Force was actually created through a City Council resolution a year ago, when we were facing the potential closing of several more Pittsburgh schools. That resolution, authored by Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, specifically called for the group to consider school closings and the district’s financial situation as well as equity issues. While some of us were asked to serve on the Task Force in the winter when it was announced to the press, others were invited later, and there was a several month delay while the Mayor’s office hired an education program manager and then an outside “mediator” to run the group.

A number of us objected to the idea of a “mediator,” rather than a facilitator, for these meetings, as it suggested that our work would be confrontational or conflict-ridden, which was not at all how we saw our role. After the first meeting in June, the Mayor’s office terminated the contract with the mediator. [Post-Gazette, 7-29-14] After our third meeting in September, we learned that the new education program manager had never moved to the city and had resigned. [Post-Gazette, 10-7-14]

The June meeting was largely spent trying to determine the agenda of the Task Force, with the discussion ranging from district finances to safety, housing, poverty, teacher quality, and relationships to outside entities such as foundations and businesses. (Full disclosure: I was not able to attend the first meeting as it was rescheduled at the last minute when I was having minor surgery. As it turned out, not one of the four parents on the Task Force was then able to attend.) The group decided to focus on school closings in the next meeting.

However, at that second meeting in July, we learned that superintendent Dr. Lane would not be bringing forward recommendations for any new school closures until the board asks for such a list. With the threat of imminent school closures off the table, the Task Force spent the second meeting in another discussion of what the agenda ought to be, focusing finally on 1) how PPS and the city can collaborate, and 2) how the groups might work together to improve public perceptions of the schools. While I (and others) pushed for the inclusion of community schools in the conversation – as this recommendation comes from the grassroots, is a natural fit with the theme of collaboration, and represents the work of many hundreds of our community members – the topic was shelved for future discussion.

At the third meeting of the Task Force in September, I presented ideas for collaboration between the district and the city stemming from the extensive work we had done for the last Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report. These are all specifically ideas for collaboration to improve the fiscal situation of the district (there are lots of other ways we could foster collaboration, but no ideas were presented). I will re-print all nine suggestions from the report here, though some lend themselves more to collaborative work with the city than others (stick with me, or skip ahead to read about the final Task Force meeting):

  1. Engage the entire community in a concerted effort to restore the state budget cuts. Since Governor Corbett’s historic budget cuts to Pennsylvania’s public schools in 2011, the Pittsburgh Public School district has lost $26.8 million per year. Just a single year’s loss represents well over half (58%) of the entire projected PPS deficit of $46 million. The cumulative loss to PPS over the past three years totals $80.4 million – far exceeding the district’s entire expected shortfall in 2015. In other words, the loss of state funding has been devastating to Pittsburgh students and is the single largest threat to the district’s financial well-being. Restoring the state budget cuts ought to be our community’s top priority. Fortunately, Pennsylvania could do just that. There is money in the state budget, but it’s not going to public education. Budgets are about priorities. [See our running list of “Where’s the Money” for a list of our revenue source ideas.]
  2. Lobby for a fair funding formula. Following its own 2006 “Costing-Out Study,” the Pennsylvania legislature concluded it was short-changing public schools $4 billion and established a six-year plan to phase in increased state funding for public education using a new, fair funding formula. The state was two-years into this plan when Governor Corbett took office and eliminated the new formula, making Pennsylvania one of only three states in the nation without a modern, equitable way to distribute its education budget. [Education Law Center, “School Funding Report 2013”] The current formula costs districts such as Pittsburgh millions, in part because it does not account for the actual number of students with special education needs nor the actual cost of educating those students. Pittsburgh has a larger proportion of special education students, including children with multiple disabilities, than many other districts. Right now, 18.1% of Pittsburgh students receive special education services, but the district is only reimbursed based on a flat rate of 16% in the broken funding formula. In addition, the state’s own Special Education Funding Commission recently found that special education funding has not increased since 2008-09, effectively pushing rising costs onto local school districts. [“PA Special Education Funding Commission Report,” December 2013]
  3. Work with state legislators for charter reform. The way Pennsylvania pays for charter schools is broken. An outdated and seriously flawed funding formula enacted by the PA legislature mandates that our local school districts make tuition payments to cyber charter schools that far exceed what it actually costs to educate children. In many districts across the state, local schools are able to provide cyber school services to students at half the cost cyber charters are charging. [Data and analysis at Reform PA Charter Schools]
    Our legislators need to stop taxpayer overpayment to cyber charter schools – currently estimated at $365 million every year – by limiting cyber charter school tuition rates to what it costs local school districts to provide the same or better cyber school service. We should also be auditing cyber charter schools at the end of each school year and returning excess cyber charter school payments to school districts.
    In addition, due to an administrative loophole in the law, all charter schools are paid twice for the same pension costs – once by local school districts and again by the state. Our state legislators need to stop this “double-dip” pension payment system, which by 2016-2017 will cost taxpayers $510 million. They also need to stop charter and cyber charter school management companies from using taxpayer dollars allocated for educating children on advertising and political lobbying. Currently, for-profit management companies of charters and cyber charters can spend tax dollars on 7-figure CEO salaries, expensive advertising, shareholder profits, billboards, TV and internet advertising, and more.
  1. Collaborate with the City of Pittsburgh to find mutually beneficial solutions. For example, we should consider shifting the balance of earned income tax revenues split by the city and the school district. In 2003, the state required the school district to turn over a portion of its earned income tax revenue to the city, which was bankrupt at the time. This has resulted in a loss of $84 million to the Pittsburgh Public Schools. [Post-Gazette, 11-4-13] We urge the district to work with Pittsburgh’s new mayor, Bill Peduto, who has expressed an interest in re-visiting this state-mandate. The mayor’s transition team recently reported on many other ways it recommends the city and school district work together to find mutually beneficial solutions, including cost savings with shared services. The new cabinet-level Chief of Education and Neighborhood Reinvestment position within the mayor’s office is a step in the right direction, as is the new 21-member task force proposed by City Council. These efforts recognize that strong schools make strong communities, that we can no longer afford to silo the school district off on its own and expect it to thrive, and that the future of our city depends on finding bigger solutions to our mutual challenges.
  2. Ensure that everyone pays their fair share. In the last property assessment, the Pittsburgh Public School district lost more than $10 million in tax revenue from large corporations. [Post-Gazette, 12-6-13] For instance, BNY Mellon got a $1.5 million tax bonus from the reassessment. Despite its promise to support the city, Rivers Casino has petitioned to reduce its assessment every year since it opened, attempting to shortchange Pittsburgh schools by $1 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 8-25-12] In addition, some large non-profits do not pay anything to the school district. For example, Allegheny County controller Chelsa Wagner conservatively estimates that if UPMC, the largest land-owner in the county, were to pay property taxes just on its holdings in the city of Pittsburgh alone, it would owe the school district $14 million. [Post-Gazette, 3-21-13] If UPMC submitted PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) to PPS, schools would gain $8.5 million a year. [Special report, Post-Gazette, 9-23-12] We urge the district to work with the new city administration to ensure that all corporations pay their fair share to support our public schools.
  3. Consider a small local tax increase. A recent survey found that Pittsburghers would support a small increase in their local taxes to support public schools. [Great Public Schools Pittsburgh community report, October 2013.] This is not surprising given that a similar tax was recently approved by voters to support public libraries. [Tribune Review, 2-26-13] We support the Pittsburgh school board’s January 2014 decision to raise taxes, yielding $3 million for the district. [Post-Gazette, 1-22-14]
  4. Work with federal legislators to end sequestration. Federal cuts due to the U.S. government sequestration cuts cost Pittsburgh Public Schools over $2 million in the 2013-14 academic year. This has already resulted in the loss of six early-childhood classrooms. [Post-Gazette, 7-25-13]
  5. Explore alternative sources of revenue with existing resources. We believe the district can repurpose schools that are supposedly “under-enrolled,” and attract more students to those schools. The district can expand the magnets for which there is tremendous demand. For example, the district could take some of the most selective magnets in the city, such as Sci-Tech, Dilworth, and CAPA and expand them. The district could also expand into the area of adult education as well as rent space in its underutilized schools. We also encourage the district to fully consider proposals put forth by the community for monetizing existing assets as put forth in the October 2013 VIVA report.
  6. Partner with local foundations and community organizations. Community based schools have been successfully implemented in other cities with local partners helping to cover the costs of many of the programs and services envisioned in this report. Pittsburgh is blessed with philanthropic and business sectors actively engaged in public education: one goal of the community schools strategy is to get all partners “pulling together” rather than working piecemeal. By engaging foundations and local businesses in the planning and implementation phases, they will also be able to make more strategic use of their resources. For example, partners might spend a dollar once to support a community health care clinic in a school, rather than spending that dollar three times to support three different program goals around “Communities,” “Healthcare,” and “Children and Education.”


These were the only suggestions put on the table in September. The highlight of that meeting for me was the participation of our three student members, who emphasized the way in which gentrification in city neighborhoods is pushing out families and entire schools (ala Reizenstein, now Bakery Square). Their insightful comments about poverty, housing, tax credits for urban development, and the city’s ability to attract and retain families were truly inspiring.

At the September meeting we learned that our fourth, and what was to be our final, meeting in October would be open to the public. The focus of that meeting last night was to be on “marketing” ideas to improve public perceptions of Pittsburgh Public Schools. A few Task Force members and folks from the audience contributed ideas, and also shared a number of pressing concerns in response to Dr. Porter’s question, “What can be better about our schools?” [For more details, see Post-Gazette, 10-21-14]

I reminded the Task Force of the following marketing-related recommendation from the Mayor’s Transition Team subcommittee on PPS partnerships (which I also served on last December):

“Mayor as an Advocate for Positive School Press: The mayor holds regular meetings and publicity events at our schools. The mayor regularly highlights positive events occurring at the schools as a part of these media events. This will increase media attention on positive events occurring at our schools. It will make the positive relationship between the city and schools apparent.”

I then presented ten additional suggestions – gathered from the community in conversations with parents, students, teachers, and others – about how the Mayor and City Council could partner with Pittsburgh Public Schools to serve as media and public relations advocates for public education:

  1. What if this is the “year of the public school” in Pittsburgh? Hold every press conference at a different public school throughout the city.
  2. Use the schools for public meetings and include students.
  3. Feature PPS students whenever possible (such as inviting students to help pick the art for his new office – which was brilliant!) More student bands at city events, students leading the pledge of allegiance, students reading their work. Use PPS students as “the face of Pittsburgh.”
  4. Create a website featuring PPS stories and graduates. Or include these in existing web sites.
  5. Highlight PPS graduates whenever and wherever possible: Hall of Fame, emphasize in mayoral and City Council proclamations, emphasize to the press.
  6. Designate each week a certain school’s week. With 50 PPS schools, every week of the year could celebrate a different school: “Pittsburgh Manchester week,” then “Pittsburgh Lincoln week,” etc. Or double up, and feature two schools each week for 25 weeks during the school year. Concentrate news stories on those schools and use it as a way to engage families and communities in the process.
  7. Engage students, families and communities in creating the list of “What works in my school” or “What’s great about my school.” Otherwise it’s not authentic and rings hollow. Kids can spot what’s phony.
  8. Sponsor a student media or video contest to have kids tell their stories about #PPSWhatWorks, #PPSrocks.
  9. Acknowledge that we want these success stories in every PPS school; not an attempt to whitewash or paper over problems. Stories of “What is Great” are both real and aspirational.
  10. Encourage billboard and other media donations for an ad campaign featuring students and parents explaining why #WeChosePPS

We learned that our final meeting will be with Mayor Peduto himself, and then the Task Force will submit its concluding report by December. If you have anything to add, please let me know and I will bring it to the table! I consider these small windows through which we can make our voices heard. Process issues can frustrate our attempts, or even slam those windows shut, but our determination and commitment to education justice for all students is strong stuff. And I am still encouraged that our new mayor truly wants to hear from the community. So let’s hear your ideas!

Still Black and White After Brown

A diverse group of parents, students, teachers, community leaders, and elected officials rallied at Freedom Corner in the Hill District yesterday to mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Under a surprisingly scorching sun, one speaker after the next noted that we have yet to see the full promise of that historic Supreme Court case.

Rev. Freeman of the Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock and President of the PA Interfaith Impact Network, talked about the impact of the 1954 Brown decision on his fourth grade classroom in highly segregated Georgia. He reminded the crowd of about 50 that we are part of a much larger movement for equity and educational justice.

The Post-Gazette featured the rally on the front page of the Local section this morning with a big color photograph. [Post-Gazette, 4-14-14] Here are some more photos from the afternoon:

"Remember the Promise"

“Remember the Promise”

Debra Srogi, a Whittier parent, and Irene Habermann, chair of the PIIN Education Task Force

Debra Srogi, a Whittier parent, and Irene Habermann, chair of the PIIN Education Task Force

No More "Gated Communites of Education"

No More “Gated Communities of Education”

"Education Justice NOW"

“Education Justice NOW”

Rev. Freeman talks about racial segregation in Georgia in 1954

Rev. Freeman talks about racial segregation in Georgia in 1954

Perry graduate, Allegheny K-5 parent, and Westinghouse teacher Regina Hutson

Perry graduate, Allegheny K-5 parent, and Westinghouse teacher Regina Hutson

La'Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh speaks about the meaning of equity and justice

La’Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh speaks about the meaning of equity and justice

City Council members Natalia Rudiak (center) and Dan Gilman (right)

City Council members Natalia Rudiak (center) and Dan Gilman (right)

After the rally, groups fanned out to go door-to-door, talking to people about becoming an “education justice voter.” The aim is to encourage folks to get out and vote and to consider candidates on the basis of their support for public schools. Here’s a video from the Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia, documenting the kick off of a similar education-voter drive there:


Also this week, the National School Board Association released this video featuring the legacy of the Brown decision in Pittsburgh. The filmmakers visited Pittsburgh Milliones/U.Prep and interviewed me, Dr. Lane, and others about persistent racial segregation in our city:


And another release this week in recognition of the Brown anniversary: the national Journey for Justice alliance just published, “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage.” (Journey for Justice is a national coalition of 36 grassroots groups working for education justice. The local partner here is Action United.) This devastating report is heavily documented and also features the results of a “listening tour” conducted in 13 cities earlier this year, including Pittsburgh. It’s worth a close read as we remember the disproportionate impact budget cuts, school closures, and educational policies continue to have on communities of color.

Your Plan for Great Public Schools

The community has spoken. You have spoken. Yes, you. And you’ve had some pretty amazing ideas about what our public schools can be and how we can get there.

Together we’ve asked: How do we make all the public schools in Pittsburgh into great schools, schools that any family will happily send their children to, and that students will want to attend? At the same time, how can we address the long-standing disparities in our city, with far too many families living in poverty and students of color lacking equitable access to opportunities? Well, it turns out the community has a plan.

Over the past several years, literally thousands of people have participated in town hall meetings, rallies, community forums, lectures, street demonstrations, panel presentations, vigils, meetings with policy makers, teach-ins, trips to Harrisburg, public protests, and social media actions. To create a truly community-based vision for our public schools, you gave your input through these neighborhood events, as well as post card drives, petitions, numerous on-line discussion formats, and a large community survey. Volunteers, including several parents from Yinzercation, put all this together in an exciting new report, just released by our coalition Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh.

I highly encourage you to grab a cup of your favorite beverage and enjoy this concrete, positive, evidence-packed, attainable vision for our schools: “Great Public Schools for All Pittsburgh Children: A Community-Based Plan.” In a nutshell, here’s what you said: We believe that making schools the hearts of our neighborhoods is the most important improvement we can make in the coming years. Students and families deserve community schools that level the playing field and provide access to programs, services and resources that help them succeed in school and in life. We believe that all students ought to have equal access to education, including homeless children, children in foster care, children in residential placements, children with disabilities, immigrant students and English language learners.


1. Re-imagining Schools at the Center of Our Communities

  • Meet multiple student and community needs.
  • Schools as social and cultural centers.
  • Collaborate with communities as partners.
  • Protect schools as valued public assets.

2. Rich, Culturally Relevant Curriculum and Programs

  • Full art, music, science, history and world language programs.
  • A full-time, professional librarian in every school.
  • A full and varied athletic program.
  • The reduction of high-stakes testing for our children.

3. Focus on Student Learning

  • Smaller class sizes.
  • Differentiated instruction.
  • Provisions to meet the special education needs of all our students.
  • Well-funded and widely available tutoring programs.
  • A high-quality, well-supported teacher in every classroom.

4. Early Childhood Education

  • Expanded early childhood learning opportunities.
  • Maintenance of full-day kindergarten.
  • More rest and play time for kindergartners.

5. School Climate

  • Adequate daily recess for all students.
  • A nurse in every school, every school day.
  • Appropriate number of social workers and guidance counselors.
  • Bullying prevention programs in every school.
  • Fair and nondiscriminatory disciplinary policies.
  • Positive behavior support and restorative justice.
  • Authentic parent engagement.

By committing ourselves to a community schools strategy, we are able to promise all Pittsburgh students what they deserve: a rich, diverse, culturally relevant curriculum; schools in which they are safe, respected and valued; highly qualified teachers who are given the resources and support they need; full arts and athletic programs; smaller class sizes; a reduction in high-stakes testing; dedication to equity, inclusion and racial justice; and so much more. If our district—and we as a city—can make this commitment, we have the opportunity to inspire all of our children and instill in them a lifelong passion for learning.


Implementing a Community Schools Strategy

  1. Build awareness across the city.
  2. Develop a citywide task force.
  3. Design a five-year plan.
  4. Evidence of community school effectiveness.
  5. Funding for community schools.

Finding New Revenue for Our Children

  1. Engage the entire community in a concerted effort to restore the state budget cuts.
  2. Lobby for a fair funding formula.
  3. Work with state legislators for charter reform.
  4. Work with the city of Pittsburgh to find mutually beneficial solutions.
  5. Ensure that everyone pays their fair share.
  6. Consider a small local tax increase.
  7. Work with federal legislators to end sequestration.
  8. Explore alternative sources of revenue with existing resources.
  9. Partner with local foundations, businesses and community organizations.

I encourage you to read the report for full details on our collective vision and proposed solutions. And stay tuned for more events coming soon where you can continue to be a part of this crucial conversation and help shape the future of public education in Pittsburgh. You can help today by sharing this summary and full report with your friends and colleagues. Thank you!


Thankful Top Ten

A lot of my Facebook friends are posting a message every day this month detailing the things for which they are grateful. It occurred to me how easy it would be for me to fill a month’s worth of posts just noting the many things I am thankful for in our public schools.

But I’ve been distracted from writing those posts since we’ve had such a busy month: with actions ranging from the PIIN Town Hall meeting to greeting Gov. Corbett on his campaign launch to hosting a forum for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia students [“A Week of Action,” “Calling All Students”]; battling the terrible charter reform bill barreling our way [“Killer Weeds”]; raising important questions about a potential contract with Teach for America [“Six Questions for Teach for America,” “Too Few Answers”]; and drafting an education platform with our grassroots colleagues around the state for the Democratic candidates for governor [“What They Should be Saying”]. I’m worn out and ready to eat pie!

But I’m still feeling the spirit, so here just in time for Thanksgiving, I offer my top ten education justice gratitude list. I am thankful for:

  1. Students who are speaking up about their education and their schools. I love the new Student Bill of Rights [Pittsburgh Courier, 11-22-13] and am grateful to the many students who have testified recently before City Council and the school board.
  2. Teachers and staff who work with our children every day and volunteer countless hours after school and on the weekends. I wrote about “Teacher Heroes” after the Sandy Hook tragedy last year, which has been back in the news this week, and I wish I could send that piece as a thank you note to every one of our teachers.
  3. Our democratically elected school board, which is accountable to the public and has been working in recent years – with urging from A+ Schools, local foundations and others – to make itself more transparent and open. I am grateful we don’t have mayoral-control in Pittsburgh.
  4. Mayor-elect Bill Peduto who believes that the strength of our city is tied to the strength of our public schools. I am grateful that he has appointed a cabinet level education officer and for his commitment to collaborating with the district and community partners to find more holistic, sustainable solutions.
  5. Pittsburgh City Council for recognizing that closing schools harms communities, and ultimately our entire city, and for calling for a moratorium on school closures.  [See “A Moratorium Makes Sense”]
  6. Grassroots colleagues around the state who are working to knit our sometimes-disparate battles into an authentic, inclusive, and strong education justice movement.
  7. Thoughtful critics who disagree with me, who have taken the time to sit down over coffee and talk, and who engage in productive public dialogue. I am grateful for civil discourse.
  8. Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, an unprecedented coalition of parents, students, teachers, community members, faith leaders, local unions, and social justice activists. The work of collaboration is messy and hard, but I am grateful for the power of commitment and strength in working together.
  9. The thousands of people who are getting involved in education justice: just this past week, over 1,300 people signed our petition asking the school board to delay its vote on the contract with Teach for America, closing Woolslair elementary, and selling our property to a charter organization until the public has more information and the four new board members can participate in those decisions.
  10. Parent activists like these who packed the Pittsburgh school board public hearing last night:


  • Pam Harbin (above) presented the school board with the GPS petition containing 1,341 signatures and hundreds of supporting letters.
  • Kathy Newman opposed a contract with Teach for America saying, “I offer my services as a CMU professor-free of charge-to help recruit qualified STEM teachers to teach in our schools.”
  • Michele Boyle asked the board to “stop foreclosing on our student’s second homes. Stop closing schools!”

What are you thankful for in our education justice movement?