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!

Lynda Wrenn for School Board

Sorry for the long radio silence – I’ve been working to help launch Ms. Lynda Wrenn’s campaign for the Pittsburgh school board. Lynda is a fantastic candidate in District 4 (in the city’s East End), where Mr. Bill Isler has announced he is retiring at the end of this year. I’m excited about her vision for our students and schools. Even if you don’t live in the district, this is a crucial race to get involved in: among other important decisions, the new board will be choosing the next Superintendent! Four of the nine school board director positions are up for election this year, and at least two of those races will be contested with multiple candidates. Hang onto your hats, this primary is going to be a fun ride!

Here’s a great opportunity to meet Lynda and learn more about her campaign:


You can RSVP for the launch party and get more information on the Facebook event page.

So why is Lynda the woman for this very difficult job? She has the vision, values, relevant experience, and temperament we need on the school board. Lynda has been a PPS parent for 15 straight years. She’s been a PTO president, a volunteer tutor, and has served on multiple district committees and task forces. She knows how the district works and how to collaborate with diverse groups of parents, students, teachers, staff, administration, elected officials, and community partners to get the real work of public education done. As she explains:

I’m running for school board because I want every child in the city’s school district to have the opportunity to excel to the best of her or his ability. I believe that investing in our public schools is in the best interest of our children, our neighborhoods and our city. A city is only as good as its school district. Exciting things are ahead for Pittsburgh and I will work hard to make sure that the school district is moving forward and providing the best that it can for the children of our city.

Lynda has a Masters in Teaching from Chatham University and did her student teaching right here in Pittsburgh Public Schools. She has also worked in marketing and advertising as well as in childhood obesity research (which took her into Pittsburgh’s middle schools). And she understands finance: her undergraduate degree is in Economics and she also worked in the office of the Financial Vice President and Treasurer at Radcliffe College (Harvard University) where she was responsible for fiscal reporting.

Many people in District 4 already know Lynda as an extremely engaged community member: she has served as a president of the Point Breeze community organization, and on committees for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Chatham Baroque, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, and the National Council of Jewish Women. She currently serves as an Allegheny County Democratic Committeewoman in the 14th Ward.

I hope you will join Lynda at her launch party and take the opportunity to get to know her – and to get involved in this important campaign for the future of our city.

All They Want for Christmas … is Art Education

Last night at the final board meeting before the winter holidays, Pittsburgh students told school board directors what they want for their schools. If Santa was paying attention, he didn’t have to write down very much. The students’ wish list contains only one item: arts education.

The students who spoke at the meeting attend Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 and are concerned about the impact of several years of budget cuts on arts education across the district. They reached out to Yinzercation, and steering committee member Kathy Newman worked with them and helped them understand the process of presenting to the school board. Two of those students, seniors William Grimm and Margaret Booth, are co-presidents of the CAPA chapter of the National Arts Honors Society (NAHS). Through that chapter, they collected statements from other CAPA students about why the arts are important in public education.

National Arts Honors Society CAPA chapter co-presidents, Will Grimm and Meggie Booth, at their presentation to the Pittsburgh Public School board.

National Arts Honors Society CAPA chapter co-presidents, Will Grimm and Meggie Booth, at their presentation to the Pittsburgh Public School board.

As Grimm explained, “Recent budget cuts to the arts have had a profound impact on our district, especially CAPA. The visual artists lost their sculpture class, the instrumentalists their private lessons…it hit everyone hard.” Before presenting the statements from his fellow students, he told the board of directors, “They are real responses from real students who know how much the arts matter. These are from students of every grade, gender, race, and background. They are the voices of the ones most affected but least heard.”

You would have to have a heart like the Grinch – three sizes too small – to not be moved by these students:

  • “Art is empowering. It gives an outlet for emotions to youth struggling to figure them out. The arts allow a freedom no other discipline can offer. Without art, I would be nowhere; and everyone deserves the right to be somewhere.” – 11th grade
  • “Cutting money towards the arts is like cutting out a child’s personality. Students aren’t at school to just do math, science, English or social studies. We are here to learn about the world and how to interact with it.” – 9th grade
  • “To deprive public schools of the accessible and thriving art programs is to completely ignore a monumental aspect of a child’s development—their creativity.” – 10th grade
  • “We need to keep the arts in schools because nothing has taught me more about myself, what I believe, and how I connect with the world around me than the arts.” – 12th grade
  • “I believe that art should be kept and funded in schools because of the expressive value and apparent lack of freedom in school otherwise. Arts give people a sense of belonging and keep many people level headed. Art means everything to us and we thrive off of it’s cultural value.” – 12th grade
  • “…when we think of nuclear fission and sending men to orbiting celestial bodies, paint brushes and piano keys don’t come to mind. However, sometimes what matters is what we don’t see. Art has had an underlying current propelling academia. Leonardo da Vinci sketches of the human body led to research into anatomy. Philosophy and film inspired rockets to the moon. Why should we keep the arts? We should keep the arts because they provide direction to the force of math and science.” – 12th grade
  • “Art is important because it brings beauty to the world.” – 11th grade
  • “Why is this even a question?” – 12th grade

Margaret Booth began her testimony by saying, “Shakespeare gave me the words in 4th grade when I participated in the Shakespeare Scene And Monologue Contest with my elementary school. Frida Kahlo gave me strength in 9th grade as I admired her paintings and her story. The arts, in general, have given me the voice I have today.” Here is the rest of what she told the school board:

I have been in the Pittsburgh Public Schools since kindergarten. If I were to pick one aspect of these past years that has influenced me most significantly as a person, I would pick the exposure I have had to art, whether it be drawing on construction paper, acting in a play, or playing a screechy version of jingle bells on the school-provided violin.

During my time at CAPA, I have met hundreds of students with similar stories about how the arts have opened opportunities and possibilities in their lives. While I know the majority here agree with me about the importance of the arts in our schools, I am here today to reiterate the message that the arts have a profound impact on students, especially young children who begin to internalize self-worth at such an early age. When I think about my own confidence building, which can be attributed to early exposure to the arts, it saddens me to think that all children will not get these opportunities soon enough. As Colfax cuts middle level choral programs and Linden is unable to offer instrumental programs until 5th grade, I see systematic potential barriers for students from lower income homes, minority students, and those with disabilities from entering a school such as CAPA.

But aside from CAPA, I believe that students everywhere need exposure to the arts sooner. There have even been notable studies showing increased achievement in STEM classes when students also participate in art. This is because the confidence the arts offer is invaluable; art is neither right nor wrong, it is a life long process of creation that trickles down into the confidence to do anything.

As budgets are planned, I would ask you to keep the imaginative quality of youth in mind. The arts give students like me a voice louder than their own. Give them an instrument or a marker or music and they will give you a masterful new idea that could change the world. The arts unlock creative thinking and new approaches to problem solving quite different from STEM programs, something our future desperately needs.

I hope the Pittsburgh Public School board and administration listen to these wise students. If they have to send a letter to the North Pole as well, I’m sure these students would do it. But arts education is difficult for elves to manufacture and for reindeer to deliver. So we will continue working with these fabulous young people to make sure our state legislators – who control the purse strings for public education – hear them, too.

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!

33 More Hours for Learning!

We scored a big victory in Pittsburgh last night! The school district and school board agreed to substantially reduce testing for students in grades K-5. The biggest winners are children in grades 3-5, where testing will be cut from 85.5 periods a year to 41.5 periods. At 45 minutes per period, that is 1,980 minutes of instructional time – or 33 hours of real learning time – that our children just got back in their lives.

Thirty-three hours! And that’s just in test-taking. When tests are eliminated, students also gain back time that had been dedicated to test-prep, so there is a multiplier effect here, too.

School board member Sherry Hazuda looked at those numbers and said, “No wonder people are complaining when you see it like that.” [Post-Gazette, 9-9-14] Indeed. We certainly have been complaining. We’ve also been meeting with the district, legislators, and other decision makers to provide evidence of the negative impacts of high-stakes testing. [See “High Stakes for Students”] Last night, board member Carolyn Klug pointed out one of those impacts, explaining that with these testing cuts students will not only have more time to learn, “it will reduce stress as well.” [Post-Gazette, 9-9-14]

The specific testing cuts include the elimination of the TerraNova and some Curriculum Based Assessments (CBAs). In its presentation to the board, the district noted that the relatively new CDT tests would continue, but the scheduled is marked as “negotiable.” Some teachers have told me the CDTs provide some useful information, while others (including principals) have shared they do not find them helpful at all. Either way, the CDTs are computer hogs: they are given on-line, meaning the entire computer lab is not available for weeks on end throughout the school year during the various testing windows. This is particularly problematic with increased class sizes: at my children’s school, many classes far exceed the number of working computers in the computer lab.

The district also plans to continue the GRADE assessment. I wrote about this particular test last fall when a Pittsburgh teacher shared her experience giving the test to her struggling students. The teacher felt she was being forced to practically abuse these children with a poorly designed test (purposefully created this way to fail a set percentage of test takers to “norm” the results into a nice bell curve) and that it undermined the learning community they had worked so hard to build together. That post went viral and was published by the Washington Post. [See “Testing Madness”]

So there is still room for improvement, but this is a fantastic start. Allison McCarthy, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, told the school board that they are also planning to reduce testing for students in grades 6-12. I applaud Pittsburgh for taking this important first step.

And we are not alone. The school board in Florida’s Lee County recently voted to opt the entire school district out of that state’s high-stakes tests! [Washington Post, 8-28-14] Immediately following that vote, Palm Beach County school board starting discussing doing the same thing. [Sun Sentinel, 8-29-14] There is growing recognition around the country that high-stakes testing is hurting children, negatively affecting their learning, and narrowing their curriculum.

What’s more, research is stacking up against the use of student test scores to measure teachers and entire schools (which is one of the major reasons we’ve seen an explosion in the number of tests each year). For instance, the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a report this spring strongly warning about the limitations of using student data to evaluate teachers through Value Added Modeling (VAM). The ASA concluded: “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” The statistical researchers concluded, “This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.” [American Statistical Association, 4-8-14]

So while I am enormously encouraged by Pittsburgh’s efforts to reduce the overall number of tests, we still have a ways to go to tackle the full consequences of high-stakes testing on our kids. Still – 33 hours restored to teaching and learning! Hurray!

Hurting the Poor

I don’t know how Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, can keep a straight face when he talks to reporters. Again and again he declares that Governor Corbett “has increased state funding for public schools by $1.5 billion” over the past four years. [Post-Gazette, 8-28-14]

Anyone with half a brain or with a school age child can tell you that’s a load of hogwash. Sometimes having school age children makes us parents operate with only half a brain, but we can still tell you that Pennsylvania kids are sitting in larger classes, with fewer of their teachers, and missing critical books, supplies, academic courses, and programs.

Of course, what Mr. Eller means is that Gov. Corbett collapsed a bunch of line items into the Basic Education Funding portion of the budget, so that he could say that this single line item increased. Meanwhile, he decimated overall state funding for public schools. Gov. Corbett also likes to tout the additional dollars he put into pension payments (as required by state law) when he calculates that $1.5 billion figure, but will not account for the fact that he slashed charter school tuition reimbursements for districts, Accountability Block Grants, School Improvement Grants, or other programs such as the Education Assistance and High School Reform programs.

As the following graph clearly illustrates, even allowing for increased state contributions to pension payments, our schools are still not receiving the level of preK-12 funding that they were back in 2008-09! (In this chart the federal stimulus dollars are in yellow and pension dollars in light blue: check out the dark blue columns to see how our schools have been set back more than six years in budget cuts.)


But this is more than a rhetorical debate over which line items to count. Four years into this mess it is now clear that these historic budget cuts have hurt our poorest students the most. A new report out this week analyzes state funding per child and finds that budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts. What’s more, using the state’s own data, the report demonstrates that class sizes increased more in high poverty districts and that reading and math scores declined the most for students living in poverty. [Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence, PSEA August 2014] Look at the disparity in chart form:


[Source: PSEA, 8-25-14]

What does that look like here in Southwest Pennsylvania? Just look at the following table of the ten biggest losers in Allegheny County on a per-student basis. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed by budget cuts with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a parade of high-poverty school districts. It’s worth noting the story of race here, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Compare these numbers to Fox Chapel, which has “only” lost $36 per student (no students should be losing money for their education), or Mt. Lebanon ($9), or my alma mater, Upper St. Clair, which has actually gained $4 on a per-student basis.



Perhaps Gov. Corbett should spend more time explaining why his policies are hurting poor kids than trying to convince us that he has increased spending on public education. We parents just aren’t that gullible.

Back to School

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t ready to put the kids on the school bus this morning. I never want summer to end! And this was a particularly busy summer for public education advocates, so we have a lot to catch up on. But first, I need one minute of your time: please take this very quick straw poll to help guide our work together this year. What do you think should be the priorities for Yinzercation in 2014-15?

Now here’s a brief look at some of the issues that have been percolating in the summer heat:

Governor’s race: Yinzercation has been asked by various community partners to work on get-out-the-vote and voter registration efforts. If you are interested in helping to staff a table at a new community event in the Hill District on Monday afternoon, September 1st (Labor Day), please let me know.

State budget / fair funding: Remember that fantastic bus trip to Harrisburg with parents that we organized back in June? While the Governor and legislature wound up passing a sorry budget for our kids, we did get our message out. And as a result, we’ve been invited to host a meeting here with the entire Allegheny County legislative delegation. Want to be a part of this special opportunity? Let me know!

High-stakes testing: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did a 180 last week and finally acknowledged that students are being over-tested. He agreed to allow states to wait another year before implementing teacher evaluation systems based on high-stakes tests, though Pennsylvania will not delay its own state-mandated system. [Post-Gazette, 8-22-14] He could have said much more, but it’s a start. In related news, Pittsburgh Public Schools will be voting this week on some assessment changes: we want to strongly encourage the district’s efforts to 1) reduce the overall number of tests, 2) reduce un-necessary and inequitable stakes associated with too many tests, and 3) focus on quality assessments that provide meaningful and timely feedback to students and teachers.

Equity and resources: Is your school starting the year with equitable resources? Do your students have the books and supplies they need? We want to know! (Drop me a line.) Some parents worked all summer to get students what they deserve. Kudos to Mr. Wallace Sapp and the other parents and community members in Manchester for the successful launch of their Math, Mud, and More summer camp. Mr. Sapp also met with Sen. Fontana and Rep. Wheatley to talk about public education issues.

Charter reform: Over the summer, the Pittsburgh school board voted unanimously to decline a proposed expansion of the Environmental Charter School, which is now in the process of appealing to the state board. In a series of packed public hearings, parents raised a host of critical equity issues, noting “About 28 percent of ECS students are eligible for subsidized lunch, compared to 71 percent in district schools … 21 percent of students are black, compared to 54 percent in district schools … [and] zero percent are English language learners, compared to about 3 percent in district schools.” [Post-Gazette, 7-23-14] While charter schools continue to be contentious and sometimes divide our community, there is clearly still a strong need for public dialogue about the role of charters, civil rights, and state reforms aimed at funding, accountability, and transparency.

School closings: I learned this summer in a meeting of the Mayor’s Task Force on Education that Pittsburgh superintendent Dr. Lane does not intend to bring forward any more recommendations for school closures unless asked to do so by the Board of Directors. This doesn’t mean we won’t eventually see more school closures, of course, but it’s a good sign that we have more room for conversation and creative thinking, such as that put forward by an activate group of Woolslair parents who have proposed an exciting new STEAM model for their school.

Discipline and school climate: Pittsburgh Public Schools released a new student code of conduct that represents a positive step forward in addressing equity and school-to-prison pipeline issues. [Post-Gazette, 8-5-14] I’m pleased to see the way in which the district is trying to de-criminalize minor infractions (such as mobile phone use), though we will need continued public conversation, professional development, and building leadership to see real change.


And so it’s back to school this week, and back to work fighting for the public education that all our children deserve. Did you take the quick straw poll yet to help focus our work together this year? Please take one minute to vote for your priorities. What’s most important to you?

Score! Save!

In keeping with our athletic theme from earlier this week: we’ve had a SCORE! After the Pittsburgh school board heard public testimony and questions raised by the community about proposed cuts to PE classes, the district withdrew the package of graduation requirement changes that contained those cuts from board consideration. [See “Cutting PE”] At least for now.

This is a real victory. The school board (and the public) deserve more time for due diligence on proposals that involve students losing more teachers and that raise equity issues. My hope is that the district now uses this opportunity to answer the community’s questions and address larger concerns of student health and wellness (we welcome comments from the district here on the blog and invite use of this space to help inform the conversation). Parents need to be a part of that dialogue, too.

So now that we’ve had a SAVE with phys ed, please SAVE these three dates:

1. May 5th: The community schools report back meeting has been rescheduled for Monday at 6PM at the Community Empowerment Association (7120 Kelly St / 15208). Join the Pittsburgh delegation that attended the Community Schools National Forum in Cincinnati a few weeks ago. The delegation consisted of parents, school board members, representatives from the Mayor’s Office and City Council, teachers, faith leaders, foundation personnel, and other community members. Members of the group will share what they learned and we will discuss what community schools could look like for Pittsburgh.

2. May 6th: Yinzercation will be teaming up again with Education Voters PA for a statewide call-in-day. We’ll be joining thousands of parents, students, teachers and community members from across the state to speak up in support of our public schools and telling legislators in Harrisburg that Pennsylvania’s children cannot afford another year of inadequate state funding and political posturing. It will take less than 10 minutes of your time, so block off a coffee-break on Tuesday. I will send more details, including how to reach your representatives and talking points, next week.

3. May 13th: Yinzercation is helping to co-sponsor an event commemorating the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. This is the Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools and we will be rallying to bring attention to the unfulfilled promise of that decision. Plan to bring your kids after school at 4PM to the historic Freedom Corner in the Hill District for performances, snacks, and more. Details to follow.

Cutting PE

OK, I’ll admit it. If there was one class in high school that I was tempted to cut, it was PE (no, mom, I never skipped class – I was way too much of a rule follower to do that). I was no athlete, though I did play on the volleyball team, and Phys Ed was generally torture for me. I think I still have dodge ball nightmares. But my own kids have had two terrific PE teachers who have demonstrated to me just how important a quality gym program can be for students. And now instead of cutting PE, I’m worried about proposed cuts to PE.

Tonight at the Pittsburgh school board’s public hearing, a number of people are speaking out about proposed changes to the district’s PE requirements. The changes are part of a package of new high school graduation requirements, which would halve the number of required PE credits, reducing them from 2 to 1 (each course is a .5 credit). Effectively that means that Freshmen and Sophomores would take gym, but it would be optional for Juniors and Seniors.

My understanding is that the district is trying to make more room for Biology in 9th grade, perhaps adding lab time (though at least some schools have had Freshman biology labs in the past, and still accommodated PE, so I am unsure of this rationale – if this is indeed behind the proposed changes). Some people have told me that there is concern about low student scores on the Keystone exam and that we are trading PE time, which “doesn’t count,” for test-prep time in an area “that counts.” (If that’s true, this would be another example of the consequences for students of high-stakes testing.) There have also been scheduling issues at some schools with upper-class students fitting in their AP courses.

In a meeting a few weeks ago, the district told me the changes were being proposed to bring PE credits in line with other course offerings and to provide more choices. I’m not sure why we can’t continue requiring PE and offer more choices at the same time. Gym was never my favorite class, but I had to take it every year of high school – and it was a whole lot better when I got a chance to choose aerobics (and even archery!) over being pummeled with a dodge ball.

I’m particularly worried about the huge number of students who are not getting adequate daily exercise: a report released last spring by the Institute of Medicine shows that only half of kids are meeting national guidelines. Their “committee recommends that elementary school students spend an average of 30 minutes per day in physical education class, and middle and high school students should spend an average of 45 minutes per day in physical education class.” [Institute of Medicine Report, 5-23-13] That’s 45 minutes every day, not once or twice a week, and not for just two years out of four in high school. If we are serious about the “whole child,” shouldn’t we be thinking about the obesity epidemic?

The bottom line is, with these proposed changes will come additional teacher cuts. Our students have already lost so many of their teachers – and with fewer adults in the building there is a real impact on overall education, not just physical education. For example, my kids’ K-8 school has lost so many adults that there aren’t enough eyeballs to sufficiently staff recess. While rumors are flying and I’ve heard unofficial reports with even higher numbers, here is what I understand the district proposed to the board last week:

  • Allderdice (.5 cut), from 7 to 6.5 teachers.
  • Brashear (3 cuts), from 7 to 4 teachers.
  • Carrick (1 cut), from 4 to 3 teachers.
  • Obama (no cuts) still at 3 teachers.
  • Perry (.5 cut), from 4.5 to 4 teachers.
  • Sci Tech (no cuts) still at 2 teachers.
  • Uprep (2.5 cuts), from 3 to 1.5 teachers.
  • Westinghouse (.5 increase), from 2 to 2.5 teachers.

If the board approves these cuts, it will actually be up to individual school principals to schedule PE courses. I worry that this means we will have another equity issue on our hands, similar to school libraries, with some buildings robbing Peter to pay Paul and keep a full complement of PE offerings, while others use the approved reductions to move resources to other areas. Making PE fungible could lead to more inequity. [See “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books”]

The Pittsburgh school board will be voting on the proposed changes in graduation requirements at its meeting this Wednesday. Here are the questions I hope they will consider – and that I hope the district will answer, to help us all understand more:

  1. Are our students going to lose more teachers?
  2. Will there be cuts to K-8 teachers and classes as well?
  3. Are we cutting PE to make room for more test-prep (or testable subjects)?
  4. How are students going to have more choices if there are fewer teachers to offer the courses (which already have 45 kids per class, per the collective bargaining agreement)?
  5. Could we not offer choices and require PE all four years in high school?
  6. How does this proposed reduction in PE requirements help PPS meet the national standards for physical exercise?
  7. How will the district ensure equity in PE offerings?

What questions would you add? If you are concerned about this issue, you can write to the PPS board at But do it quickly – the stopwatch is running and the gym teacher is about to blow the whistle for the last time.

Come to Brunch

Do you like jazz? Do you like to eat? Do you want to support a simply incredible, grassroots effort led by local parents to help some of the most struggling students in Pittsburgh?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, clear your lunchtime calendar for Saturday May 10th. Seriously. Go to your calendar and write in “11AM, Jazz Brunch, Manchester Elementary School, 1612 Manhattan Street, 15233.” Here’s why:

This fundraiser is being held by a new initiative called the Pittsburgh Struggling Student Association, or PSSA (a delightfully ironic acronym, given that those letters usually stand for the state’s system of standardized high-stakes tests), organized by parents in the Manchester neighborhood on the Northside (who may or may not have intended for their acronym to be delightfully ironic).

The group is currently running an all-volunteer program they developed themselves called “The Math Doctors,” to help students at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 learn math skills. Volunteers show up in the classroom wearing surgical masks and help students save their “patients” (math problems). The students apparently love it. And now those parents are creating a summer camp called Math, Mud, and More that will combine math lessons with a new edible garden (the “mud”) and plain old fun.

These efforts are the brainchild of Mr. Wallace Sapp and his wife, Ms. Lisa Freeman. Some of you may remember them from the “Manchester Miracle” eighteen months ago, when our post about the empty library shelves at that school went viral. Within days we had thousands and thousands of people all over the world, and right down the street, sending books to fill the shelves. Famous authors were tweeting our messages. News reports of the campaign caught the attention of local activists who solicited donations and labor to create an entirely new and gorgeous library space for the students. And Mr. Wallace was there every day opening all those boxes of donated books. In fact, he is in the school nearly every day of the year as a volunteer.

Mr. Wallace Sapp (right) helping to unload donated books during the Manchester Miracle.

Mr. Wallace Sapp (right) helping to unload donated books during the Manchester Miracle.

A couple weeks ago Mr. Wallace invited me to his home to learn more about his idea for the Math, Mud, and More summer camp. While our kids played games together, I talked to Ms. Lisa, who is also a case manager for the Salvation Army, about her efforts to get local parents engaged in their children’s education. Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 is a very special place, serving a tremendous number of families living in poverty: 89% of the students receive free and reduced price lunch and many parents face multiple barriers and challenges to engaging more fully with the school. Eighty-nine percent of the students are African American and the school provides regional classrooms for autistic support, multi-disability support, emotional and therapeutic support, and life skills support.

When Wallace and Lisa set out to do something, they get it done. (They are also working with a group to get a free children’s health clinic at the school.) Their enthusiasm is contagious. Honestly, you cannot say no to these two beautiful people. I have learned a lot from them, and we should all be paying attention to their wisdom.

Their camp will serve 30 kids this summer, with the involvement of many current and retired teachers. There will be reading coaches. Slippery Rock University and the University of Pittsburgh are both partnering with them, to prepare college students to be excellent substitute teachers. The camp will be held at the school, where the kids will be turning part of the school grounds into a garden. They will receive a free lunch every day. The entire program falls under the fiscal sponsorship of the Manchester Citizens Corporation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit community development organization.

Manchester principal, Ms. Theresa Cherry, practically gushes about the program, saying that it “embodies some of the best principles of education.” In a letter of support for the Pittsburgh Struggling Students Association, she writes, “The transformative power of whole community involvement in children’s lives lies in its ability to help students understand we are all partners in their education.” After explaining how she feels this summer camp will benefit the students she continues, “This may seem a little over the top for a typical support letter, but it is at the heart of what I believe that education is all about; helping individuals achieve their potential.” Indeed.

Transformative power. Whole community involvement. Kids achieving their potential. Parents acting at the grassroots level, responding effectively to local educational needs. Let’s help make Math, Mud, and More as big a success as the Manchester Miracle in the school library. It starts with us being willing to show up for an hour to have lunch together on Saturday, May 10th.

That’s exactly one week before the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court desegregation ruling. With equity issues staring us in the face here in Pittsburgh, we have certainly not achieved the full promise or potential of the Brown decision. But this is one thing we can do together: please come to lunch. And bring a friend or two.