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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.