More or Less

Three thousand, eight hundred. That’s how many teachers and school staff the students in Philadelphia are losing. You read that right: 3,800 – almost 20% of the city’s entire education workforce – received pink slips last week. Philadelphia public schools will no longer have any secretaries to answer the phones, counselors to help students, assistant principals, or cafeteria monitors. There will be no more teachers for music, art, or library. No books, supplies, after school activities, clubs, or field trips. [The Notebook, 6-7-13]

One Philadelphia teacher wrote to education historian Diane Ravitch this weekend to say, “Most of my co-workers laid off were history teachers – an untested subject in PA.” She went on, “What is happening in Philadelphia is a complete travesty and a failure of democracy … If I return to the classroom in the fall, the ‘education’ I will be able to give my students will not look anything like what I was taught education should be.” [DianeRavitch, 6-9-13] Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the cuts will leave only “something called a school.” [The Notebook, 6-7-13]

So why should we care over here in Southwest PA? For one thing, the travesty described by these Philadelphia educators is just the tip of the public-education-crisis iceberg. What’s happening in the city of brotherly love is happening all over Pennsylvania (and in fact, all over the country) with the systematic de-funding of our schools, the re-routing of public resources to private hands, and the re-writing of state education policies to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Look at Duquesne school district, which is circling the drain and may not even be a school district after next year. Look at Wilkinsburg, which is on the state’s new “financial watch list” and is just inches from a state takeover. The Post-Gazette reports today that residents there think “the district has already fallen off the cliff”. One person told a reporter, “Honestly, it’s too far gone. … At this point, it needs to be totally dismantled.”  [Post-Gazette, 6-10-13] That’s the tragic sound of the public giving up on public education. Worse, it means people have given up on public school students.

This battle we are fighting for our schools is a battle for education justice. This past weekend, Yinzercator Kathy Newman and I presented at the Labor and Working Class History Association conference in New York City, along with our colleague Rebecca Poyourow from Philadelphia. We talked about the political, social, and economic context of public education today and our grassroots movement – and Rebecca spoke movingly about what is happening in our sister city.

In another session, teachers from New York and Chicago talked about the successful 2012 Chicago teachers strike, which was really a strike to save public schools for public school students. Peter Brogan, a Ph.D. student in geography and one of the panelists at that session, described the way that school closings reproduce poverty in particular neighborhoods and treat students as “surplus humanity.” What an apt phrase. When we give up on public schools in places like Wilkinsburg or Philadelphia, we condemn tens of thousands of children to living as surplus humanity. And we know that this “surplus” is mostly black and brown. In other words, education justice is also about racial justice.

I was struck by this photo taken at a recent rally in Philadelphia of a young African-American student holding a sign that reads, “Why take MORE when we already have LESS?” Indeed.

[Photo: Amy Yeboah, The Notebook, 5-30-13]

Think about this student. Think about Duquesne and Wilkinsburg. Think about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the devastating cuts to our educational programs. It’s time to get MORE for these students who have LESS.

Education Voters PA is urging everyone to call the State Senate today, explaining, “Over the past two years, the Senate has played a critical role in getting money back into the budget for public education. …Right now the Senate is where key decisions will get made to move things in the right direction.” Click here to get your Senator’s information and then call today and tell them to:

  • Fight for $270 million in funding to be restored. If they can cut almost $1 billion in one year, then restoring a third of that shouldn’t be impossible. In addition, they should help identify resources for Special Education – which has been flat funded for 5 years – and they should fix the charter pension double dip.
  • Adopt provisions to improve the funding allocation formula to make it fairer and to get to adequate funding levels for all students.
  • Ask them NOT give away hundreds of millions this year by eliminating the state corporate assets tax (the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax). Tell them to delay this phase out so we can so we can invest in children instead of providing another corporate tax break.

That would do it, more or less.

A Rolling Rally

The wheels on the bus go round and round … Yesterday over 100 parents, students, teachers, and community members got on yellow buses for a tour of Pittsburgh. We drove through neighborhoods impacted by four rounds of school closures during the past ten years. Along the way we heard from students who told us about the effects of displacement from multiple school relocations and their disrupted education. And we got pledges from elected officials as well as candidates for school board, city council, and mayor, who agreed to three specific points in our grassroots call to action:

  1. No school closings before neighborhood impact studies are conducted.
  2. Make everyone pay their fair share: Explore and advocate for enhanced and additional sources of revenue before considering cuts or closings.
  3. Keep public schools public: Reject any plan to give any control of our schools to the private sector.

Our new coalition, Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, developed this three-point pledge and it truly represents the work of the grassroots: with many, many meetings and email conversations, dozens of people participated in this process from Action United, AFSCME, the Hill District Education Council, One Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, SEIU Healthcare PA, and Yinzercation.

It is far more specific about education issues than anything our legislators or candidates have been asked to sign before. As a result, both the pledge and the Rolling Rally brought out some key distinctions among our elected officials and would-be representatives. It’s now clear who is willing to hold the bus for Pittsburgh students, and who might throw our children under that bus.

Sitting school board member Regina Holley agreed to all three points and spoke briefly at the final Rally in front of the now-closed Schenley High School. Board member Mark Brentley arrived from another school event just at the end of the event to show his support, though he missed the chance to speak. Significantly, mayoral candidates Jack Wagner and Jake Wheatley committed to coming but never showed up. This was especially telling on a day when the Post-Gazette once again promoted Wagner as their candidate, yet he broke his own promise and failed to come support Pittsburgh students and their families. [Post-Gazette, 5-19-13]

However, Bill Peduto was there and spoke very movingly about the importance of great public schools for great communities. In fact, Bill Peduto has been at every single town-hall meeting, rally, community conversation, press conference, and education-related event our grassroots movement has sponsored. Where was Wagner? He seriously missed the bus on this one. There’s a reason Yinzercation strongly endorsed Bill Peduto. [See “Pittsburgh is Lucky”]

City council candidate Dan Gilman also came and spoke quite powerfully about the role of community schools in Pittsburgh’s future.

In the three contested school board races, six of the seven candidates hopped on the bus and rolled with us around the city. In District 9, both Carolyn Klug and Dave Schuilenburg agreed to the pledge (candidate Lorraine Burton Eberhard did not attend). Similarly, in District 1 both Lucille Prater-Holliday and Sylvia Wilson committed to the three point agenda. The real surprise came in District 5, where Terry Kennedy readily made the pledge, but Steve DeFlitch refused to commit to the second and third points (about advocating for state resources and not handing our public schools over to private corporations).

The Rolling Rally highlighted the serious subject of school closure now looming before our city once again. By getting pledges from our candidates, our grassroots movement is getting out in front on this issue and helping to promote a deep community conversation. And we’ve demonstrated who is literally willing to get on the bus for public education. Now it’s your turn: make sure you don’t miss your stop and get out to vote tomorrow!

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Sea to Shining Sea

Did you know that we organized Sunday’s Rolling Rally here in Pittsburgh to coincide with public education actions all over the United States? Starting tomorrow with an information picket line and student walkout in Philadelphia and running for six straight days there will be major actions in cities from coast to coast. Local organizers designed these events to show solidarity with the terrible situation in Chicago, where students are facing a tidal wave of 54 school closings. At all of these rallies you will likely see banners proclaiming:

Our City. Our Schools. Our Voice.
We Stand with Chicago!

Here’s how Pittsburgh fits into the national scene:

  1. San Francisco (May 20th at12 noon, City College of San Francisco (CCSF) Mission campus, 1125 Valencia Street). A rally and press conference will link the school closings in Chicago with the threatened closure of CCSF. Action will include street theater (“Chicago comes to San Francisco”), speakers (students, faculty, community organization rep), and a call to action.
  2. New York City (May 18th from 10am -4pm, PS 28 at 560 West 169th Street). Mirabal Sisters, a member of the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, is holding a Parent Convention and plans to organize a Skype session with Chicago parents to link school closings in both cities.
  3. New York City (May 21st from 5:30 8:00pm, Brooklyn Borough Hall). Training for approximately 75 parent leaders on the national school reform landscape, with a particular focus on the corporate school reform agenda. The link will be drawn between the school closing struggle in Chicago and the NYC 2013 parent-led education justice organizing led by the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice and the Urban Youth Collaborative.
  4. Philadelphia (May 17th, Philadelphia School District Building). Hundreds of teachers will organize a citywide informational picket in support of full funding for public schools as students arrive in the morning. A citywide student walkout & press conference at City Hall is being organized in the afternoon to call on local politicians to fund Philadelphia public schools with the supports students need.
  5. Pittsburgh (May 19th, buses pick up at Weil, Obama, Burgwin; end at Schenley). Bus tour with parents, students, educators and community activists of schools that have been closed or converted to charter schools. At each school, the bus will pick up more people, and speakers will talk about the impact of the school closing on the local neighborhood.
  6. Houston (May 19th, Harris County AFL-CIO located at 2506 Sutherland Street). Community Voices for Public Education, the Texas Organizing Project, and the Houston Federation of Teachers are organizing a teach-in to explain the corporate agenda for public education, with an emphasis on school privatization, charter expansion, and testing.
  7. Kansas City (May 22nd at 6pm, Kansas City Public Library located at 4801 Main Street where Michelle Rhee will be speaking). Community members from MORE2 will be leafleting outside the event linking Michelle Rhee to the national corporate agenda for public education and what is happening in Kansas City and Chicago. Teachers will be inside the event sitting in silent protest.
  8. Boston (May 18th, English High School at 144 McBride Street). Educators for Social Justice Conference with parents, students and educators, with a focus on “creating the schools we deserve” and exposing the corporate agenda.
  9. Newark (May 22nd, Roseville Avenue School located at 70 Roseville Avenue). Activists will hold a large press conference calling on the Mayor and Governor to halt school closings, end the State takeover of Newark Public Schools, and express solidarity with the struggle in Chicago.
  10. Hillsborough County, Tampa, Florida (May 18th, 9:30am-12:00pm, University Area Community Development Center, 14013 N. 22nd ST, Tampa, FL). Public education advocates will hold a second Town Hall, with a partial focus on the national context.
  11. New Orleans (May 20th at 5pm, John Mcdonogh Senior High School, 2426 Esplanade Ave, New Orleans). A large press conference, followed by a town hall meeting, will highlight the national and local context of school closures and to end the state takeover of public schools.
  12. New Orleans (May 21st at 5pm, McDonogh 35 High School, 1331 Kerlerec Street, New Orleans). Another press conference will demand that the Orleans Parish School Board expands seats available in successful public schools so that parents and students have a real choice.
  13. New Britain, CT (May 22nd at 6pm, Central Park of New Britain). “Education is a Civil Right” is the message of this broad rally and march in support of funding for the public schools.
  14. Cleveland (May 20th, CASTLE Charter School located in downtown Cleveland). This action will draw the link between school closings and charter expansion, highlighting the lack of charter accountability.
  15. Cincinnati (May 20th, Cincinnati Public Schools headquarters). Testimony by union and community leaders at the School Board meeting will declare that Cincinnati must not adopt the school closing policy being proposed for Chicago, and that Cincinnati teachers and parents stand in solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union and community.
  16. St. Paul (May 20th, Como Park at 1225 Eastbrook Drive). The St. Paul Federation of Teachers will express solidarity with teachers and parents in Chicago

Pretty exciting, eh? We here in Pittsburgh are not alone. We have grassroots colleagues from sea to shining sea working on the very same issues. And when we work together we are powerful.

Please plan to come to the Rolling Rally on Sunday to learn more about school closures – and take a tour of our Steel City. Yinzercation is co-sponsoring this Get on the Bus event with our partners: the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, PIIN, Action United, One Pittsburgh, AFSCME, SEIU Healthcare PA, and the Hill District Education Council. The school buses will make several pickups, so hop on at a stop near you:

  • Weil School – 3PM
  • Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (across from Obama School) – 3:30PM
  • Manchester School – 3:45PM
  • Burgwin School – 4:15PM

We will end the tour with a big action at the former Schenley High School in Oakland at 5PM. More information and RSVP on our Facebook event page. Come ride the bus in solidarity with Chicago, and come because we need to talk about school closure in Pittsburgh, too.

School Spacing

We’re digging into the issues behind potential new school closures in Pittsburgh. So far we’ve talked about school size and school utilization. Another key issue we need to understand is school spacing: where schools are located, in which neighborhoods, how far students must travel to get to a school, and population density.

Here is the current map of Pittsburgh schools (click to open a separate window where you can navigate the map):

PPS school map

You can see that we still have a pretty broad distribution of schools in all grade bands. Yet with the last four rounds of closures, some neighborhoods have lost all of their schools. Activists in places like Hazelwood have told us how losing every single school in the area has had a terrible impact on families. Researchers who study nutrition and urban planning call communities without grocery stores “food deserts.” After Hazelwood’s schools closed it also lost its last grocery store, making it both a food desert and a school desert.

Of course we understand that not every neighborhood in Pittsburgh will have its own school. We are way past those days. In fact, because of our unique topography and history, Pittsburgh has 90 recognized neighborhoods, some quite tiny. So I don’t think any of us is arguing that every student in Pittsburgh should literally have a neighborhood school right up the street.

But a comment from a Facebook reader got me thinking about the difference between “neighborhood schools,” and what we might start calling “community schools.” This reader suggested that we shouldn’t be so fixated on the idea of old-fashioned neighborhood schools, saying, “Students in low density suburbs like Fox Chapel don’t have ‘neighborhood’ schools and yet no one seems to complain about the quality of education there.”

This is a valid argument, but the point is that Fox Chapel residents still have community schools. In fact, they have six of them (a high school, a middle school, and four elementary schools). Compare that to our example of Hazelwood, which has a population of 6,407 people, about a thousand more people than Fox Chapel with a population of 5,388, but without a single school. And Hazelwood residents are much less wealthy than Fox Chapel residents: so, for example, fewer people are likely to own cars to drive across the city to be engaged with their children’s education at a distant school.

At the Envisioning Educational Excellence advisory meeting on Monday, our break-out group discussed the idea of “equity and choice” in our schools. The community members at our table were adamant that all families should have a great school in their area. No one thought it must be at the end of the street, but everyone agreed that there is no such thing as “choice” unless there is a reasonably nearby school that offers a full, rich curriculum for every kid. No student should have to go all the way across the city just to receive world language instruction. In fact, rather than putting more resources into creating additional magnet programs spread around the city, our group was fairly vocal about its belief that families want great community schools.

Superintendent Dr. Linda Lane told the Post-Gazette “she was struck by how one small discussion group noted that equity is more important than choice.” That is exactly what we said. Except that our community schools must be both equitable and excellent. She noted, “That’s pretty powerful.” I couldn’t agree more. Dr. Lane also acknowledged our group’s “concerns for communities that feel disenfranchised because they don’t have a school” and recognized that we “spoke of a need for stability and consistency, not only in keeping schools open but also in keeping the same principal.” [Post-Gazette, 5-14-13]

So as we continue to think about potential school closings in Pittsburgh, I suggest we think more expansively about community schools. These will necessarily be spaced farther apart than the neighborhood schools of yore, but as we look at our maps and plan, we need to consider what happens to our communities when we create school deserts.

To see this process up close, please Get on the Bus! Yinzercation is co-sponsoring a Rolling Rally through Pittsburgh this Sunday to highlight this conversation about school closure. It will be fun, educational, and productive – so please plan to join us. (Really! Have you been to Hazelwood? This is your chance to see some important parts of Pittsburgh with a tour guide.) The school buses will make several pickups, so hop on at a stop near you:

  • Weil School – 3PM
  • Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (across from Obama School) – 3:30PM
  • Manchester School – 3:45PM
  • Burgwin School (now closed) – 4:15PM

We will end the tour with a big action at the former Schenley High School in Oakland at 5PM. More  information and RSVP on our Facebook event page. This is a new group of partners working together called the Pittsburgh Great Schools Coalition, and includes the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, PIIN, Action United, One Pittsburgh, AFSCME, Yinzercation, SEIU Healthcare PA, and the Hill District Education Council. Come be a part of the conversation about school closure and community schools.

School Utilization

Last week we talked about school size – a key issue in the debate over whether to close schools, which ones, and how many. I made the argument that we should probably not fear somewhat larger schools, simply on the basis of size, if they come with adequate resources for the students in every building. [See “School Size”]

But school size alone doesn’t tell us much. We need to know how each building is being utilized. Last night, the Pittsburgh Public School administration shared some new data with the Envisioning Educational Excellence advisory group that sheds some light on this very issue. Here’s what I learned. [All data from PPS Envisioning Update]

To see how we stack up against other school districts, PPS compared itself to several other Pennsylvania cities that it considers comparable in terms of racial composition, poverty rates, and other factors. In the following graph, the administration makes the case that our school size average is “far below” those peer districts.

PPS slide 20

I have a couple issues with this data. First, I am uncomfortable comparing Pittsburgh to the towns PPS selected as “peers”: Allentown, Erie, Hazleton, Lancaster, Reading, and Scranton. While the demographics might be similar, it strikes me as foolish to benchmark ourselves against a place like Reading, for instance, now rated the second poorest city in the entire country. If they have enormous schools, that might not necessarily be what I want for our children in the Steel City.

Why not compare Pittsburgh, as I did last week, to the Upper St. Clairs and Fox Chapels of the world? In fact, let’s make our comparisons local – since this is how the public views things. The comment I hear all the time is, “If Mt. Lebanon can do it, why can’t Pittsburgh … ?” I would love to see some local data that illustrates how PPS is doing in comparison to those districts around here – both great and struggling. I was far more convinced that larger school sizes might be OK for our kids when looking at our own wealthy suburbs and seeing how we stack up (and we do appear small, at least compared to the two districts I analyzed).

Furthermore, the PPS graph above compares all schools together – elementary, middle, high schools, K-8s, everything. This is not a useful metric, since we know that elementary schools tend to be much smaller than high schools. Though it can be difficult to compare apples to apples – since, for instance, some districts do not have K-8 schools or 6-12 schools – we need to see that data broken out by grade band.

Next, the district shared a graph on school utilization. This is more illuminating, but not without problems.

PPS slide 21

According to this graphic, the majority of our schools are in the 60-80% or over 80% full range. In fact, three times as many schools (35) are in this range as those in the 40-60% or less than 40% full range (15 schools). Yet, the graph is titled, “Pittsburgh has Under-Utilized School Space throughout the City.” Of course, this chart does not provide geographic data, so we can’t see how this actually maps onto the city (though the district did provide the raw data, see below). I also don’t feel separating schools by type (magnet vs. feeder) tells us anything, but the district is clearly trying to determine what parent preferences are based on building utilization.

Perhaps the most significant thing we have learned is the way that PPS defines adequate utilization. With increased “target class sizes” for this year, the administration is now calling anything under 30 students at the 6-12 and 9-12 level under-enrolled. Parents in the grassroots movement have been very clear that they would like to see smaller class sizes, not larger. In fact, looking at the average class sizes for our various school types, it seems to me that only our 6-12 and high schools might be considered on the small side:

PPS slide 27

However, the district suggests in another slide that, “the under-capacity issue is most pronounced at the 6-8 and 6-12 level,” where 5 of the 12 schools are enrolled at less than 50%:

PPS slide 31

Right now, using those increased “target” class sizes, the district is arguing that a quarter of our schools are at less than half capacity. I just want to caution again that this “half empty” school narrative is a seductive one that goes over quite well with those ready to slash school budgets and implement privatization plans, as we have seen all too clearly in Chicago. So far, I have not heard our administration officials using this line and I am grateful.

But it does appear they are ready to argue that our average school is a third-empty. By their measurement, the average school is at 67% capacity (or just over two-thirds full). My own children’s school is rated at 69% capacity – which would probably come as a surprise to any parent who has ever walked in the building and found it nearly bursting at the seams with students. I don’t see classrooms with a third of the desks empty. In fact, this is the school where my sixth-grader has 39 students in his math class. And using the district’s numbers, we would need 1,036 students to fill the school to capacity. Are you kidding? Colfax with over 1,000 kids?

I leave you with the raw data from the district to mull over. One note here: the right-hand column lists the percentage of students from a school’s feeder pattern who attend the school. This is not the percentage of students at the school who are from the feeder, but rather a measurement of what we might call the “catchment rate” (there’s probably a technical term for this) – the percentage of all eligible students who live in the catchment area who choose to attend that school. This is not a terribly useful number without a sense of why parents are choosing the schools that they do. A public school with a low catchment rate may be in an area with a large proportion of private schools yet still be great; or a school with a low catchment rate might indicate that families are high-tailing it out when given the option. This data doesn’t tell us.

What do you think about school utilization in Pittsburgh?

Come out Sunday to a Rolling Rally to talk about school closure and the impact on our neighborhoods. Learn more and RSVP on Facebook. Help us spread the word!

School Size

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the problems associated with closing neighborhood schools. As you’ll recall, we have lots of data coming out of places like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia suggesting that school closure has serious consequences for students and communities, and often does not save districts nearly as much money as they predict. [See “Again and Again”] But a Facebook response to that piece from a Yinzercation reader got me thinking about two key issues that we have to deal with here in Pittsburgh: school size and spacing. Today let’s talk about school size.

This reader suggested essentially what our district administration has been saying for a while now, too: that Pittsburgh’s average school size is just too small to support all the classes and programs we might wish to have in each building. He wrote, “With less than 500 students per school [on average in PPS] we’re not talking about megaschools where students feel lost. If we still had 93 schools, we would only have 283 students per school–hardly enough to support a variety of classes and facilities such as libraries and a gym, as well as central staff such as a principal, librarian or school nurse.” I actually agree with the premise of this argument, but I have some concerns, too.

Here’s some data to put this into perspective. This academic year, the mean (average) size of our 20 K-5 schools is 352 students. (See the table below.) Now a school with 350+ kids is hardly an “empty” school building – and it’s probably nowhere near “half empty” either, which is the common rhetoric you will hear around school closures. At the Occupy the D.O.E. event last month, Chicago teacher’s union Karen Lewis gave an inspiring talk explaining how this very narrative of “half empty” buildings had been used to justify mass school closures there. (Chicago is calling any classroom with fewer than 30 kids “under-utilized”!) So I’ve been very sensitive to this phrase and the power it has to convey an unrealistic picture of what it looks like inside our schools.

That said, we have a bit of a spread in terms of school size at the K-5 level. The smallest school in the district is Pittsburgh Woolslair at 175 students (which appears to be quite an outlier), then we have several in the mid-200 range, and the largest is Pittsburgh Faison with 534 students. We have to remember that these are student enrollment figures, and don’t take into account actual school building size. So a building designed for 400 students is nearly full with 350 kids; but in a larger building, we have the problem of extra seats. It’s that excess capacity that is costing us real money in the city, so this is a non-trivial issue.

The other issue to pay attention to when talking about school size is the difference in student needs. A teacher pointed out to me that some of our lower-enrolled schools are serving high populations of children with special needs, where you necessarily want a much lower student-to-teacher ratio.

That said, our K-5 schools do appear to be on the small side when compared to some of the highest performing school districts. For example – the Pittsburgh suburb of Upper St. Clair where I grew up and recently named the best school district in the state – has an average elementary school size of 491 students. Fox Chapel is 466. These numbers suggest that we should not fear slightly larger schools if – and this is the big if – if they come with the additional resources so that every building can have those full-time librarians, art and music programs, nurses, guidance counselors, and the rest. In a conversation with me, one district official called this the “Cadillac plan” and explained that we just can’t have all things in all schools when they are this size.

Just to finish looking at that data: our K-8 schools average just over 500 students, with a range from 251 at Pittsburgh Manchester to well over 700 at Pittsburgh Colfax. Our middle schools seem small compared to our suburban peers, averaging 357 students, whereas Upper St. Clair has two middle schools with an average student population of 658 and Fox Chapel has one large middle school with 1,019 students. And our 6-12 schools appear quite small in comparison, averaging just 688 students, when you consider these are both a middle school and high school combined.

Pittsburgh has four high schools remaining: Perry (951 students), Brashear (1,461 students), Carrick (830 students), and Allderdice (1,351 students). Again to put this in perspective, USC has 1,357 and Fox Chapel 1,432 students in their high schools. This is not to suggest that Pittsburgh should necessarily try to match these suburban peers which are quite wealthy and white and different in many other ways. But just seeing these numbers has helped me feel better about the thought of somewhat larger schools. Again, if the resources are there to support the full, rich curricula we want in each building.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Evidence from school closures in six urban districts – including Pittsburgh – over the past decade reveals that “the average annual savings, at least in the short run, were well under $1 million per school.” School districts really only save money when they couple mass teacher layoffs with building closures. [PEW Charitable Trust, October 2011] And even then, districts have often been disappointed to get only pennies on the dollar for shuttered schools when they prove difficult to sell and are surprised by how much it costs to maintain mothballed buildings. [Post-Gazette, 4-15-13]

The limited “savings” from school closure have not been enough to plug the overall budget hole, let alone increase resources to remaining buildings. After each of the last four “right sizing” plans, Pittsburgh did not see dramatic improvements to the remaining schools. Just the opposite: in the past few years we’ve seen crippling cuts to everything from tutoring programs to the arts. Yet we’re still spending over $20,000 per student. In other words, we’ve been through four rounds of school closure and are paying Cadillac prices without ever getting that Cadillac plan for our kids. So while I am not afraid of larger schools per se, I worry that additional school closures in the city will just yield more of the same.

What do you think about school size in Pittsburgh?

Again and Again

It’s like a bad case of school closure déjà vu. Pittsburgh has already been through four rounds of closings in recent years, with a total loss of 39 schools. Since 2000, we dropped from 93 to the current 54 schools (that’s a decrease of 41%). And it looks like we will see round five soon, with the district scheduled to run out of money in 2016 and scrambling to find $50 million to address its forecasted deficit.

The district has blamed each round of school closings on population loss. In 1997, there were over 40,000 students in the district; today there are about 28,000. The district actually lists 26,463 students on its website, but its “average daily membership” is 27,945 – and I learned in a meeting with the administration recently that this number does not include our charter students. Since charters are considered public schools, and the district is paying to educate those students, we could reasonably argue that their numbers ought to be included – bringing our total public school population to around 31,000. That’s still a 22% drop over the past 16 years.

[Source: Pennsylvania Clearinghouse for Education Research (PACER) Research Brief, 3-2013]

The good news is that it looks like our population loss is slowing. Recall the U-Haul truck report last week that Pittsburgh leads the nation in the percentage of young people moving in rather than leaving. [Post-Gazette, 4-19-13] Pittsburgh Public Schools have also managed to hold onto most of the kids in the city: despite what may be a popular misconception, the vast majority of Pittsburgh families continue to choose public education for their children. With approximately 36,000 children aged 3-18 living in the city, 86% are in the public schools.

Yet four rounds of incredibly disruptive school closings have not solved our problems in Pittsburgh. Ironically, just eight years ago then-superintendent Mark Roosevelt was facing a similar deficit of $47 million and convinced the school board to close 22 schools, saying, “We need to get this done and get it behind us.” If only that had been the case. But school closure is hardly behind us. We closed seven more schools in 2011, yet our cost-per-student is still high relative to other school districts around the state.

So what to do? Close more schools? Or can we think about this in a broader context and start to consider some alternative solutions? It helps to remember that this is not just happening here in Pittsburgh. Mass school closings – often pushed by corporate-style reformers with a privatization agenda – are going on across the country. Chicago will lose up to 54 schools this year; Philadelphia 24 (at the same time it proposes opening 13 new privately managed charters); New York City 26 more (in addition to the 140 that have been closed recently); and Washington D.C. is talking about closing 15 schools.

Now unlike some of these places, Pittsburgh does not seem bent on privatizing its schools. But the effects of school closure are the same. Parents Across America (PAA), a national grassroots movement of organizations like ours, summarized it this way: “in city after city, mass closings have done far more harm than good. They do not lead to improved academic performance and they don’t fix budget deficits. Schools that receive students rarely receive adequate time or resources to responsibly address school mergers.” [Parents Across America, 4-2013] And the worst part is that mass school closures disproportionately affect poor students and communities of color, as the following graphic makes clear. [National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, 4-23-13]


In a review of the recent literature on school closures, Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE) concluded the following. [CReATE Research Brief, 3-2013; results reported by PAA]

Overall, school closings:

  • don’t offer better academic outcomes for students, and
  • don’t save significant amounts of money.

School closings may also:

  • cause students to feel stigmatized,
  • increase the likelihood that affected students will drop out,
  • lead to increased school violence,
  • lower the likelihood that students will attend summer school programs,
  • increase school-to-school mobility,
  • disrupt peer relationships,
  • weaken student relationships with adults,
  • leave students with few social and emotional supports to help them adjust to the challenges of their new school, and lower achievement levels for students in the receiving schools.

Before we go closing down more schools in Pittsburgh, we need to stop and ask ourselves what the consequences will be for our kids and our neighborhoods. That means we will need to think beyond the district’s current financial crisis: we need a bigger calculus that takes into account more than just the school district’s bottom line and recognizes the inter-connectedness of schools and communities.

Want to be a part of that conversation? Plan to join PIIN on Sunday May 19th (new date) for an exciting action on school closure. The afternoon will include a school bus tour of several Pittsburgh neighborhoods impacted by those 39 school closings over the past decade. Stay tuned for more details.

Philly Today, Pittsburgh Tomorrow

Massive demonstrations. Eighteen arrests, including students, parents, and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Tears and sobbing as entire communities learned they would no longer have a school. What happened in Philadelphia yesterday could be happening in Pittsburgh very soon. Last night the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to close 23 more schools in the city of brotherly love. Citing financial woes and population loss all too familiar to those of us here in the steel city, the SRC considers school closings its only option. No matter the devastation to neighborhoods. No matter that Philadelphia’s student population loss problem is largely due to charter schools siphoning students away.

The SRC has justified these school closings by saying that students in “low performing” schools would be better off in “better” schools. But this is a line right out of the corporate-reform playbook and not based on any evidence. In fact, this strategy has been tried over and over again in other cities and evidence indicates that students do not do better in different schools. And school districts do not even save money: “research shows that it’s hard for school districts to recoup the closure savings they project, and a study from the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute found that only 6 percent of students displaced by closed schools performed better in their new academic environments.” [Huffington Post, 3-7-13] Six percent. Six.

With that data, you cannot seriously suggest that closing down neighborhood schools is a strategy for improving student performance. Worse, these school closing plans fail to acknowledge the civil rights and equity issues involved, since poor communities and people of color are disproportionately affected. To close schools overlooks the critical importance of those institutions in struggling neighborhoods. It is a failure to see the larger ramifications in a city and a failure to think carefully about alternatives.

Our colleague, Philadelphia parent activist Helen Gym, points out that it is a failure of imagination and vision that is really killing public education. Inadequate resources have created enormous problems for the Philadelphia school district, “But it has been mortally wounded by a lack of vision to combat a relentless effort by corporate education reformers to declare the death of the neighborhood school.” Gym explains that Philadelphia’s school closing plan is really about:

“collapsing failing schools into failing schools, with no promises of investment and, perhaps even more alarming, with the likelihood of even greater disinvestment. Cheering on the sidelines will be private organizations that funded and contracted with the consultants driving many of the proposals. In their “vision” of a new school landscape, going to school is as simple as choosing your brand of soda. Corporate ed reform-speak labels the defenders of public education as “emotional” and “sentimental” while they claim the language of data and logic. In fact, there is plenty of data to show that the shift we have seen from neighborhood schools toward an increasingly choice-based system is not serving the city’s most vulnerable students. Data from around the country show that school closings minus a vision for re-investment are little more than self-cannibalization, where closings tend to breed more closings.” [The Notebook, 3-7-13]

Does any of this sound familiar? Pittsburgh has hired consulting firms to help it plan for the future amidst warnings that it will deplete its entire reserve account by 2015. [“PPS: Planning a Privatization Scheme?”] What seems clear is that this plan will feature another round of school closings for our city. We need to re-think the assumption that school closings are inevitable. As another Philadelphia colleague and parent activist, Rebecca Poyourow, warns: “mass closings of … public schools undermine our children’s educational prospects, compromise kids’ safety, contribute to the drop-out crisis, uproot communities, and destroy jobs and neighborhoods—all for little to no savings.” Consider Poyourow’s pointed questions to their mayor, substituting “Pittsburgh” for “Philadelphia”:

  • Why does Philadelphia have to pursue such cut-rate, imitative policy?
  • Why are we being forced to buy into this mass school-closing plan, copied from other cities where it has already flopped?
  • When we have data from other cities where such plans have proven disastrous, and when we have local data that the receiving schools are no better (and sometimes worse) than the schools Philadelphia students are being forced from, why do we have to travel down the same road? [Parents United, 3-6-13]

What Philadelphia is doing is essentially divesting in its own neighborhoods. It is a stunning lack of vision on the part of the city as a whole and a refusal to acknowledge the central role that schools play in the life and vitality of their communities. Pittsburgh needs to pay close attention to what is happening in our sister city across the state and think carefully about our vision for public education here. Rebecca Poyourow suggests:

“We need to find a way to harness the capacity for schools to be hubs for neighborhood cohesion and economic development, perhaps through the joint use of schools that are currently under-enrolled—arrangements in which non-profit or for-profit entities, public agencies, or civic groups pay rent to share the use of school buildings and grounds.  Considering such an idea is exciting, but it would take collaboration and innovation among city government officials, the school district, and neighborhood groups.  It would mean combining discussions of policy with the local knowledge of students, teachers, parents, and neighborhood residents.” [Parents United, 3-6-13]

Pittsburgh has the time right now to have that conversation and to consider such big ideas. We have to start questioning the inevitability of school closings and challenging the faulty underlying logic that claims that hurting neighborhoods will somehow save us money and improve student learning. But we have to start now. Otherwise, as Philly goes, so goes Pittsburgh.