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?

School Board Santa

It felt like Christmas came early last night for the education justice movement. The Pittsburgh school board, which includes four of nine newly elected members, presented students with two lovely gifts: instead of handing out turtledoves or partridges in pear trees (really impractical this time of year, if you think about it), the board voted to rescind a contract with Teach for America and to stop the process of closing Woolslair elementary.

The community had raised significant questions about the impact Teach for America (TFA) would have on students, teachers, and our schools. [See “Six Questions for Teach for America” and “Too Few Answers”] And the community also spoke out loud and clear about the damage caused by past school closures, with almost 1,000 people responding to a survey conducted by volunteers earlier this fall going door-to-door in neighborhoods all over the city. [See “What Pittsburghers are Really Saying About School Closures”]

Then over 1,400 people signed a petition last month asking the board to wait a few weeks until the new members were seated to make decisions about contracts and school closures that would affect the district for years to come. Despite this impressive showing of public interest – and passionate, evidence-filled testimony from parents, students, and teachers alike – the outgoing board went forward, splitting 6-3 in favor of both the TFA contract and closing Woolslair. Last night the new board reversed both decisions: this time 6 members voted to rescind the TFA contract (with two opposed and one abstention), and they voted 8-1 to halt the school closure hearing process for Woolslair.

That means there will not be any school closures in the 2014-15 academic year, though the district has already said it will soon be presenting a slate of 5-10 additional schools for the board to consider closing. While the city’s population has stabilized, and Kindergarten enrollment is way up this year, with a budget deficit looming the district is looking at school closures to stave off fiscal crisis. So we still have a lot of work to do together to find bigger solutions that help all students and all our communities. (That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to be working on Mayor-elect Peduto’s transition team, looking at collaboration between PPS and the city.)

And we still have real work to do to make all our schools supportive environments for master teachers, so they will stay with the students who need them most. I recently spoke with a former PPS high school math teacher who transferred to a K-8 this year to get away from the chaos caused by poor leadership and years of “transformation” plans – this is a very real problem. Yet in the past few weeks I’ve also heard from numerous teachers who would absolutely love to work in our “hard to staff” schools, including another former high school math teacher who was offered an early buy-out in the last round of cuts and now can’t work for the district.

Still another former (fully credentialed) PPS substitute teacher told me, “It’s indecent and disingenuous” that the district claims there are no willing and passionate teachers, when it’s not “plumbing each school’s killer subs for ‘hard to fill’ positions.” This teacher said, “Had a … position been offered to me at Westinghouse or some other school I would have got down on my knees and thanked God, crying, and accepted it with all the prodigious passion in my heart and soul.” Now those are the people we need to work at recruiting and retaining in our schools!

For now, let’s focus on the magic of the season. These two board decisions stand as real victories for our grassroots movement. In fact, TFA’s regional communications director said, “This is the first time a school board has reversed a decision to bring the program into a district.” [Post-Gazette, 12-18-13] Indeed, education historian Diane Ravitch noted that the Pittsburgh vote “was remarkable because it is one of the few times–maybe the first time–that a school board rejected a TFA contract and recognized how controversial it is to hire young inexperienced teachers for the neediest students.” [, 12-18-13]

Look at that, Pittsburgh. We did it.

With the board playing Santa last night, the gift it gave to children was the promise to fight for a great education for every student. And to the education justice movement, it gave the precious gift of hope. There’s hope for the future of Pittsburgh public education with students, parents, teachers, community members, board members, and our district education professionals working together. It’s hard to put wrapping paper on it, but this will be the one present everyone remembers this year.

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?

Calling all Students

What do zombies and massive street demonstrations have in common? Philadelphia public school students. Young people in Philly have staged zombie flash mobs to illustrate the impact of budget cuts on their education. They have also packed school board meetings to protest school closures and, earlier this year, filled the streets with thousands in a deafeningly loud march. These are exciting and engaged young people – and we have much to learn from them.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia student march, May 2013.

Philadelphia student march, May 2013.

Know any high school students? Here is a fantastic opportunity for Pittsburgh area young people to meet some of those Philadelphia students and learn about our shared fight for education justice. Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh is pleased to host student activists from Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union this Thursday, Nov. 21st. We will feed everyone starting at 5:30PM (with the meeting at 6PM) at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers building: 10 South 19th Street, on the South Side.

Please encourage the high school kids you know to join the conversation and be a part of the change we need in our schools. When students speak, adults listen. When students take action, anything is possible. Maybe even zombies in the streets of Pittsburgh.


A Week of Action

This week we’ve had several reminders that action works. When we work together, we make change happen.

On Monday, Pittsburgh Public School superintendent Dr. Linda Lane announced that she is recommending only one school closing right now: Woolslair K-5 in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield. [Post-Gazette, 11-4-13] We had been expecting to hear a much longer list of proposed closings. And though the district assures us that list will be forthcoming in the new year – when the new school board is seated – the delay is very much a “win” for all of us. Pittsburgh students deserve a plan with real vision to improve all schools and we don’t have that yet (proposals announced Monday included mowing the grass and shoveling the snow less often to save money – which is not exactly what we had in mind).

On Tuesday, Pittsburgh formally elected Bill Peduto as Mayor. This is a huge win for public education. [See “Pittsburgh is Lucky” for our endorsement back in the spring.] Mr. Peduto has already signaled that his administration will work much more closely with the school district to find solutions that help students, families, and Pittsburgh neighborhoods. For instance, he’s thinking about how the city might shift some revenues back to the district, which has lost almost $84 million in earned income tax over the past decade after the state legislature forced a change to favor the then-sinking city. [Post-Gazette, 11-3-13]

On Wednesday, Gov. Corbett came to town to kick off his re-election campaign and discovered public education advocates ready to “greet” him. Outside the Governor’s press event at the Heinz History Center, speakers said it was time to make Corbett himself history, calling him “One Term Tom.” The “people’s moving van” showed up with signs suggesting it was time to send Corbett packing, due to the harm he has caused our schools.

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Now it’s Thursday and it’s time for more action. Tonight you can be a part of the PIIN town hall meeting with over 1,000 people who will get commitments from our public officials on several critical social justice issues, including public education. Join us from 7-8:30PM at Rodef Shalom in Oakland. Action works. Acting together makes things happen.


The Wrong Questions

Pittsburgh seems to have a question problem. By that I mean, the school district and many other leaders seem intent on asking the wrong questions. Any researcher will tell you, half the battle is asking a good question, one that opens up possibilities and leads to new ways of thinking. The way you ask a question, inevitably shapes the solution you find.

For instance:

Perhaps we need to flip our thinking. Instead of asking, “How do we reduce our per-student spending?” maybe we should be asking, “What are our students getting for the money we’re spending?” The district is focused on the fact that we spend $20,000 per student and keeps asking how it can reduce that by $2,000. The focus on “per-student spending” disguises the fact that the district is not actually spending all that money on students (or things that directly affect student learning).

If we were actually spending $20,000 on each student, our children would not have lost hundreds of their teachers, classroom aides, librarians, nurses, office staff, parent engagement specialists, and other school support personnel. They would not be sitting in larger classrooms, and going without music programs, tutoring, athletics, and drum sticks for their marching bands.

If we were actually spending $20,000 on each student, we could afford all the wonderful things that our suburban peers have in their schools. For instance, last month when I toured my alma mater, Upper St. Clair High School, they proudly showed me the gorgeous new library with its separate resource room that is staffed with a teacher from every single subject, every single period of the day to help any student who needs it. Imagine!

But the district asks again and again, “how can we cut per-student spending?” rather than “how can we get a resource room like that for our kids?” At the Excellence for All parent steering committee meeting a few weeks ago, the district asked parents to play an austerity-budget game, distributing worksheets with pretend money and forcing parents to make “choices” such as cut the custodian or cut the school nurse. These are false choices and get us no closer to solutions for our students.

At the last Envisioning advisory group meeting, the administration shared with us a graph indicating the areas that the district has any control over spending (they can’t touch many line items because of state policies or legal obligations, such as debt service). By far the largest “actionable” area of the budget is in school operations, meaning mostly teachers. So any attempt to seriously reduce “per student” spending almost has to come from eliminating teachers. Closing schools alone will not “save” the district money unless it cuts more teachers and increases class sizes. How does that get us closer to the kind of education our kids need and deserve? (Remember my 7th grader with 35 students in his class? Let me tell you about the head wound he came home with last week from gym class with 35 kids trying to swim laps in a pool the size of my living room.)

I’d like the district to explain to us why our high schools can’t have a resource room staffed with teachers from every subject, every single period of the day. They tell us that we don’t have the money for that (because, contrary to logic, we are spending “too much per student”). They tell us we are spending “too much” on teachers, but at the same time, we can’t have that resource room because we don’t have the teaching resources – and to free up money for such things, we need to close more schools and fire more teachers. Excuse us if we don’t follow the logic here. I think it’s time for some fresh questions.

For instance, we might look at that steeply climbing expenditure line in our budget deficit forecast and ask, “What can we do to pressure our legislators to actually address pension reform to help our schools?” That leads to other questions, such as, “Why are our legislators considering Senate Bill 1085, which will eliminate the charter school double-dip pension payments, but only on the state’s side, without any savings for school districts?” [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] Or, “What’s the district doing to pressure our legislators to reinstate the charter reimbursement line which Gov. Corbett slashed?” That line alone cost Pittsburgh $14.8 million last year – a third of the district’s projected budget gap. [See “Charter Reform Now”]

Here are some more questions: What if the Gates Foundation had spent $40 million to help Pennsylvania “empower effective education policy” instead of its “empowering effective teacher” program, which reinforces high-stakes-testing on our kids? What if that money ­– and the $2.4 million the district spent on outside consultants to tell us how to close schools – had been spent on our crushing debt service (which is $471 million)? And here’s a really good question: Does anyone have $471 million?

What Pittsburghers are Really Saying about School Closures

It seems like everyone is talking about the Pittsburgh Public School district’s plan to close more schools. City Council. The Post-Gazette editorial board. The region’s leaders. But what about ordinary Pittsburghers? Where are their voices? What do they have to say?

It turns out, local people have a lot to say. But you have to ask them. And if you really want to learn something, you have to listen.

Now to be fair, the PPS administration has made some attempts to engage the public in its “Envisioning” strategic planning process, which we now know will include a list of proposed school closures. The district had a few parents meet one-on-one with their consultants and there was a handful of parents (and one student that I met) on the Envisioning advisory board. The district also held a few open houses for the public to see presentations on the Envisioning process; conducted an on-line survey (largely focused on “school choice”); and deployed a new on-line tool to solicit feedback.

But these measures can hardly be considered adequate community engagement. Particularly when we are talking about something as drastic as closing schools and potentially causing real harm to more Pittsburgh communities. Most of these attempts to engage the public required access to the internet, were limited to just a few people, or used various exercises and meeting formats (such as tightly scoped break-out sessions) to limit authentic, “messy” dialogue.

Unfortunately, the two outside consulting companies hired by the district for $2.4 million to advise the Envisioning process – Bellwether and FSG – don’t seem to care much about what our community actually thinks. In fact, in their winning proposal to the district, they explained they will “conduct … community engagement events as necessary to solicit input into and ensure a full understanding of, and enhanced buy-in to key reform initiatives….” [Bellwether and FSG proposal, p. 13] So is engaging the community about getting their input, or about making sure people understand the reforms the district is promoting and increasing their buy-in?

Those are completely different goals. One assumes that people have something important to offer the process, and the other assumes that people are ill-informed, need to be tutored into a proper understanding of reforms, and brought around to the district’s way of thinking. Bellwether and FSG make it clear which side they stand on: a few pages later in their proposal, they explain that they will look for best practices from around the country on “Changing … community attitudes” so PPS will learn “how reform-minded urban districts have driven change in … community attitudes, values, and buy-in.” [Bellwether and FSG proposal, p. 17]

Think about the arrogance of that statement. This is not about listening to what the community thinks, or learning from the collective wisdom and experience of the people of Pittsburgh. Instead, Bellwether and FSG want to shape our attitudes and values for us. It’s one thing to talk about getting community buy-in for a strategic plan – that’s important – but we don’t need others to change our attitudes and tell us what to think, thank you very much.

By contrast, this summer our new Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition developed a community survey to start to find out what local people really think. This was truly a grassroots effort. (I can vouch for this: I spent many hours working on this survey – and so did a lot of other people.) Volunteers went door-to-door in neighborhoods all over the city, including some of those most affected by past school closures. We surveyed almost 1,000 people (920 to be exact, and mostly in person), making sure we were listening to those in some of our poorest neighborhoods, and our communities of color.

This involved a whole lot of standing on porches and in living rooms and sitting at kitchen tables and having long, honest, conversations about our schools. No one paid us a dime. And we heard from those whose voices rarely make it to the district’s ears. We talked to parents, students, teachers, and community members. Over 62% of our respondents were African American.


Now, if you want to hear what the community really has to say, you need to read the report based on the results of this survey. (I’ll spare you the details on how many more hours went into this document, but perhaps Bellwether and FSG would like to split some of their portion of that $2.4 million with us volunteers?) This week I will be sharing highlights of the community report with you, starting with what people said about school closings in Pittsburgh. [GPS report: Creating a District of Last Resort]

School Closings

Given PPS’s extensive prior history of closing schools, we asked survey respondents for their own experiences with the closings’ effects. We found that the overwhelming experience of Pittsburgh residents with school closings has been negative (see graphic below). For every person who said that closing schools had improved education quality, more than 7 said it had worsened quality. The results were similar on how the school closings affected a range of other factors. Nearly 13 respondents said neighborhood stability got worse, for every 1 respondent who said it got better. Respondents also said the following factors got worse: student health and safety (7 to 1); family and community connections to schools (8 to 1); commuting time to school (8 to 1); peer relationships (8 to 1); and the educational opportunities for students of color (6 to 1), low-income students (7 to 1), English language learners (6 to 1) and students with disabilities (5 to 1). Across all categories, the vast majority of respondents had negative experiences with previous school closings in PPS.


To better understand these experiences, we asked respondents to share what effects they had seen or experienced personally. Their responses, a sampling of which are presented below, should be a must-read for any policymaker contemplating closing a school. In the aggregate, they present a comprehensive and insightful portrait of the many devastating effects school closings often produce, including the harm they cause to students, families, teachers, education quality, safety, neighborhood stability, equity, and the overall well-being of the school district and the city.

We also asked respondents for their views on PPS possibly closing additional schools. Nearly 9 out of 10 people either disapproved or strongly disapproved of that approach.



When Charters Cause Harm (and Leaders Fail to Lead)

Pittsburgh got some most unwelcome news this week: the state is foisting two charter schools upon us that our school board voted against. This will add millions to the district’s budget deficit just as we are being told we must close more schools in our communities in order to address that deficit. Meanwhile, our legislators are debating a very poorly designed charter “reform” bill that would actually take more control away from local, democratically elected school boards and make it even harder for districts to balance their already bare bones budgets.

Pennsylvania’s charter schools have a terrible track record of student performance. The latest national research found that charter students cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. That puts Pennsylvania in the bottom three states in the country. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013] The state’s cyber charter schools are particularly problematic, with not a single one making Adequate Yearly Progress last year. [PA Dept. of Education, Charter School PSSA Performance]

The Pittsburgh school board voted to revoke the charter of Career Connections Charter High School in Lawrenceville when it “found few … students were participating in legitimate internships, a core part of the school’s mission. The district also cited a finding that student performance on standardized tests had worsened.” [Post-Gazette, 9-24-13] Last month the state’s charter school appeal board upheld the Pittsburgh decision, but then this week decided that Career Connections could stay open while it takes its case to the courts (which will cost us taxpayers even more money).

The state appeal board also decided to overturn the Pittsburgh school board’s rejection of an application from Propel Charter Schools to open a new school in Hazelwood. [Post-Gazette, 10-16-13] The Propel chain of schools actually has a better track record than most charters in the state, though its Northside location did not make AYP last year. Propel is a non-profit, is locally run, and has a local board of directors – all critically important. But what is its secret for success?

Propel claims that its secret lies in six principles, including “agile instruction” (letting teachers actually teach in their classrooms, giving them data and support, with no hint of bell-to-bell-scripted curricula) and a “fully valued arts program” (with kids getting art every single day). [Propel Schools Principles] The school boasts of its small class sizes, support for students and families outside of school, highly qualified teachers (all state certified and most with graduate degrees), and extensive professional development for its staff. These are exactly the things we want for all of our children and in all of our schools.

So what’s the problem here? In Pittsburgh we’re being told that we can’t have these things because we’re going broke. We have a looming $46 million budget gap. Guess how much we spend sending kids to charter schools? $53 million. Yep, that’s right. We are spending more to send 10% of our kids to charter schools than it would cost to plug the budget gap, which is forcing 90% of Pittsburgh public school students to go without art, music, small class sizes, or “agile teaching.”

Now the math isn’t quite that simple (and I’m not suggesting we simply close all our charter schools). But consider this: like many school districts, Pittsburgh’s charter school payments are ballooning, up $5.5 million last year alone from the previous year. With the state’s massive defunding of public schools, Governor Corbett slashed reimbursements to districts for charter school tuition payments, costing Pittsburgh $14.8 million last year. [See “Charter Reform Now”] That amount right there is almost a third of the district’s projected budget gap. A third!

Over the past decade, Pittsburgh has endured four rounds of school closures to deal with population loss and persistent financial crises. The choices the district made left Hazelwood without a single public school – a literal education dessert. And now Propel wants to buy the former Burgwin school building in that neighborhood, which is on the market for $475,000, and then turn it into a charter school for 400 students. [Post-Gazette, 10-16-13] (I must point out that the district’s Envisioning plan considers enrollment under 500 at an elementary school to be “under-utilized” and grounds for closing.) With 400 students enjoying nice small classes, this new Propel school will cost Pittsburgh at least $5.1 million every year. So did closing Burgwin actually wind up saving money in the long term?

We visited the closed Burgwin school on our Rolling Rally bus tour back in May.

We visited the closed Burgwin school on our Rolling Rally bus tour back in May.

Now to add insult to injury, the state has not only forced Pittsburgh to accept these two charter schools – regardless of how they fit or do not fit into the larger strategic plan and budget slashing measures the administration is currently laying out for the rest of the city’s children – but our state legislators are also considering a charter “reform” bill that would make it harder still for districts to be accountable for those schools. Our colleague Susan Spicka, who works in the grassroots education justice movement out in the middle part of the state, explains that Senate Bill 1085, which came out of committee on Wednesday, is “a really bad bill that would overhaul current charter school law … and will likely move in the Senate floor as early as the week of 10/21.”

SB 1085 (and to a large extent its companion bill in the House, HB 618) would authorize an institution of higher learning to be a charter school authorizer instead of local school districts. Spicka explains, “This would strip control from taxpayers and locally-elected school boards and allow charter schools to be authorized by an outside entity, set up shop in our communities, and send us the bill.” School districts would also lose control over approving the operation of any charter schools that want to consolidate into a new, larger entity in their district. And the bill would permit an unfettered expansion of charter schools in Pennsylvania while removing language that used to call for charter schools to be models of innovation for traditional public schools – supposedly their very reason for being. [Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, 10-17-13]

So where is the administration’s leadership on these state policies that are hurting our district? Why isn’t our school board speaking up? What about our teacher’s union? We haven’t heard a peep. There may be meetings happening behind closed doors, but that is doing little to harness the power of the people. We know that it’s only pressure from a large number of people working together with our legislators that will make better state policies that stop hurting our schools and our children. The silence of our educational leaders does more than simply fail to engage people in the solution: it leaves the public with the impression that the entire budget problem is of the district’s making, and that the entire solution must therefore lie within the district’s control as well. It’s that kind of constricted thinking that leads us to assume the only thing we can do now is to close more schools and hurt more communities.

We need bigger thinking. Out of the box solutions. A full, authentic involvement of the entire Pittsburgh community. We cannot sit back and refuse to engage with state legislators who are making decisions that directly impact the district. So right now, a couple of volunteer moms who write education blogs are asking you to please send an email to your state senator and share your concerns with SB 1085. Check out Susan Spicka’s piece for the exact fixes we would like to see before the bill comes to the Senate floor. If we’re going to get educational justice for all of our children, we are going to have to demand it ourselves.

A Moratorium Makes Sense

Pittsburgh City Council has entered the debate over the future of city schools. At a public hearing yesterday, parents, students, teachers, and community members spoke passionately in support of a new resolution, introduced by Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, calling for a moratorium on school closures.

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Media coverage of the event included:

Here’s why this moratorium makes sense:

  • School closures don’t solve budget problems.
  • School closures don’t improve schools.
  • School closures hurt students, families, and communities.
  • School closures don’t provide time for the community to authentically engage in finding solutions to the district’s challenges.

Let me elaborate, starting with a quick history lesson. Here in Pittsburgh we have been through four rounds of school closures in the past decade, and are now looking at a proposed fifth round. Every time we’ve closed schools through these “right-sizing” plans we’ve hoped it would solve our financial problems and let us put the money towards improving academics for students. But time and time again that hasn’t happened.

In part that’s because closing schools often does not save as much money as people anticipate. After the last round of closures here, Pittsburgh only saved about $668,000 per building, which was far below expectations. [Pew Charitable Trust, 2011] When D.C. recently closed schools it actually cost them $40 million. [Washington Post, 3-22-13] Parent Kathy Newman pointed to data illustrating that school districts also lose per-pupil funding when students leave the district after school closures: one such California district thought it would save $700,000 by closing and consolidating schools, but wound up losing $2.4 million as hundreds of students left the district. [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2011 report]

Instead of improving education for Pittsburgh children, with closures we now have education desserts where entire sections of the city don’t have a single public school. Community member Hazel Blackman spoke at the hearing about moving to the Hazelwood neighborhood in 2000, attracted by the schools and shops. Within three years, the public schools were all closed and the shops started to leave, too. Parent Cassie Schaffer mentioned her Oakland neighborhood, another part of our city without a single community school.

We’ve lost high-functioning, gorgeous buildings that were pillars of strength in their communities. School closures have literally harmed our neighborhoods, and disproportionately affected our communities of color. School volunteer Wallace Sapp, who spends between 80-100 hours a month in Pittsburgh Manchester K-8 on the Northside, talked about moving to Pittsburgh in the 50’s to escape the Klan. He described walking to his local public school as “walking to hope,” and the closing of public schools as “closing hope.”

School closures hurt our children, especially our poorest students. We’ve displaced children multiple times, adding to the disruption and churn in the lives of too many young people. Parent and PIIN education task force chair Irene Habermann pointed to national data showing that school closures like this in other cities have doubled the drop-out rate, increased school violence, lowered the enrollment rate of students in summer school, and disrupted critical relationships with peers and adults. [CReATE Research Brief, 2013] Research also shows that students displaced by school closures will do best when they are transferred to high-achieving schools, but that is generally not what happens. [de La Torre and Gwynne, 2009] The receiving schools tend to be similar to, or sometimes even worse, than the schools that closed.

And this should be obvious, but is worth pointing out: you can’t improve a school by closing it.

Parent and PPS alumna Ramona Jones reminded us that closing schools is a choice, and reflects a set of priorities that does not always put students first. For instance, this year PPS will spend 9% less on classroom teachers than it did two years ago, while spending 9% more on school police. In fact, it will spend more on school police than it will on counselors, social workers, school nurses, and librarians. [PPS 2013 Final Budget, p. 25]

Before we close another school, we need to understand what happened to previously displaced students. We need to make sure we are doing the most to protect our students from the negative effects of school closings, including increased class sizes. High school student Delaney Morgan explained that over-crowding and lack of resources has forced six students to share a calculator for math exams and that she is lost in the back of a room with 30 students. Parent Pam Harbin spoke at the hearing about the way in which past school closures have impacted children with special needs, pointing out that many students wound up being placed in schools that could not serve their needs. For instance, 17 Pittsburgh schools – a full third – are still not accessible to students with physical disabilities.

Just as important, we need a moratorium on closures until we know if we really need to close another school. Pittsburgh’s population loss has leveled off. We have strong evidence that young families are moving into the city and staying when their children reach school age. The Pittsburgh Promise program appears to be a part of this equation. And Kindergarten enrollment is way up this year.

While the overwhelming majority of speakers voiced their support for the moratorium resolution, a handful of people opposed the measure. Their objections mainly fell into four categories:

  1. The district must close schools because it is facing a financial crisis.” This argument presumes that school closures are the only way to deal with a budget crisis. But schools should only be closed when there are no students to go to them.
  2. If we don’t close schools, the district will go into receivership and the state will take us over.” This was the argument made by A+ Schools Executive Director Carey Harris. But Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith reminded everyone that this threat was also used the last four times schools were closed as a “scare tactic to threaten parents” and others who opposed the closings. Those who spoke in favor of a moratorium were also calling for bigger thinking, to find a way for the entire city to invest in our schools – precisely to head off any state takeover and to find a financial solution that actually works this time.
  3. A moratorium will make the school board’s job harder.” County Controller and A+ Schools board member Chelsa Wagner argued that City Council should not interfere in the business of the school district. School board member Theresa Colaizzi agreed. But it is hard to see how pulling together the entire Pittsburgh community to support our public schools will make the school board members’ job more difficult. A moratorium – providing time for the fuller engagement of the public in a deep conversation, possibly with the support of a series of public meetings that Councilwoman Kail-Smith advocates – can actually help the school board, by increasing buy-in of any eventual plan. And Councilman Bill Peduto also called for the creation of a task force to help bridge the city and school district on this issue, which would help re-start the relationship between the two legislative bodies. This could be a positive outcome of the moratorium and help make the school board’s job easier.
  4. City Council doesn’t have the authority to call for a moratorium.” Former PPS strategic planning director Cate Reed, who is now a regional director for Teach for America, argued that City Council members don’t have the knowledge necessary to call for a moratorium. PPS solicitor Ira Weiss stopped just short of saying that City Council doesn’t have the legal right to call for a moratorium. But both of these arguments miss the point. This resolution recognizes that the entire city needs to be invested in our public schools. It promotes a more holistic way of thinking that doesn’t silo the district off on its own, helping all taxpayers and residents to embrace public education as their issue and to look for solutions. City Council indeed has the moral and ethical authority to call for this moratorium. Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak and Councilman Bruce Krauss agreed that City Council has the responsibility to engage in questions such as this, and that it has a precedent of doing so. (Both mentioned several examples where Council worked with multiple partners to find answers to complex problems.) Council President Darlene Harris reminded her colleagues that families leave Pittsburgh when schools close, ultimately harming the city. This is an excellent example of why this issue is precisely within Council’s purview.

I applaud City Council for seeing the connection between our public schools and the health of our communities. Strong public schools make Pittsburgh strong. That means that we all have a vested interest in public education – every taxpayer, every resident of this city. Right now, this resolution offers us the opportunity to come together as a community, to engage in an authentic conversation, so that we can move forward together to find solutions that work for Pittsburgh.

Envisioning – What?

It’s back-to-school time. But what are our kids heading back to? Students in Pittsburgh will be missing 68 more educators when they start classes on Monday. Over the summer the board approved 36 new furloughs – on top of the 280 last year – and returned 32 teachers to furlough status (these were staff who had been laid off and then brought back for temporary positions). The majority are paraprofessionals who work right in the classroom with students, so our children will be directly impacted. [Post-Gazette, 7-25-13]

On Monday evening, one of those furloughed paraprofessionals, Clevon Owens, spoke at a press conference outside the board of education. Sponsored by Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, the press conference introduced our new coalition and announced that Pittsburgh parents, students, teachers, and community members are standing up together for public education.

Mr. Owens spoke movingly about his work with children at Pittsburgh Linden K-5, where he was the transportation coordinator. He managed the bus system, greeting children and getting them safely to and from school, often working from 6AM to 6PM many hours past his shift to answer parents’ calls. He also worked in the classroom with students, getting to know entire families and making a real difference in kids’ lives: in one tough case, he was so successful in helping a boy he eventually became his godfather.

Now multiply stories like these over and over. These are the important adults in our children’s lives. Students need them to be successful. And we have an obligation as parents and community members to make sure our public schools have the resources they need to keep teachers and paraprofessionals like Mr. Owens in the classroom. That’s one of the main messages GPS Pittsburgh delivered on Monday night at the press conference, which received news coverage from KQV and KDKA on radio, and WTAE and KDKA on television. We will also have a story out soon in the Tribune Review.

Following the press conference, community volunteers moved inside the board of education to testify at the public hearing. This was extremely important because we needed to let our elected representatives on the school board know that there are now thousands of us coming together through this new coalition and that we are ready to stand with them to fight for our schools.

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This is a critical moment. The district’s “Envisioning Educational Excellence” process is now wrapping up and officials intend to present their plan to the board in October. Last week, superintendent Dr. Linda Lane revealed some of that plan to the Envisioning advisory group. [Envisioning Advisory Group slides, 8-15-13] Here are the highlights:

  • Close some elementary school closings. They are not telling us how many or which ones until they present the plan to the board.
  • Open an International-themed elementary school in the North/Central region of the city.
  • Possibly add language immersion to an existing elementary school.
  • Expand the Online Academy program.
  • Possibly open an arts-focused feeder school in the North/Central region.
  • Continue to offer feeder pattern schools, but allow elementary students to attend any school in their region and high school students to attend any high school in the city if space is available.
  • Streamline and offer fewer elementary and high school magnet programs.
  • Eliminate partial high school magnets.
  • Expand seats in popular schools such as Montessori.
  • Introduce two Early College High School programs by 2015- 16 (students could earn up to two years of college credit)
  • Explore moving Central Office and selling the building; continue trying to sell or lease unused buildings.

The advisory group asked penetrating questions about this plan, focusing especially on the issue of “school choice.” The room was unanimous in calling for quality public schools in every community, making this a far higher priority than offering more choices, introducing new programs, or reconfiguring older programs (“yet again and again” as one teacher reminded the district). One person after the next said we must focus on quality, so that families don’t feel the need to flee from their feeder schools into magnet programs, further creating haves-and-have-nots in the system.

Last week at the Envisioning meeting and again at the public hearing on Monday I put it this way: Until we have a great public school in every community – one that every parent in Pittsburgh is happy to send their children to – then we don’t really have “choice.”

So what are you envisioning for our public schools? More budget cuts? Fewer teachers and paraprofessionals? Larger classrooms? Or how about a community, thousands strong, standing together for public education and making great schools for all our kids a reality? Now that’s the kind of vision I can get behind.


Coming soon: I’ve been working all summer with the GPS Pittsburgh coalition to get our new website up and running, with lots of information on what we can do together as a community. I will let you know as soon as it’s live!