Gov. Wolf Listens to Pittsburgh Students

Oh those kids! Remember the amazing Pittsburgh CAPA students who testified at the school board hearing in December about arts education? [“All They Want for Christmas … Is Art Education”] Not only did the Washington Post pick up their story, but now Governor Wolf is listening to them, too.

Here’s a report from Yinzercation steering committee member, Kathy Newman, who helped to organize the student testimony: On Thursday, February 26th five sleepy but excited CAPA students waited in the chilly dawn to get on the Education Justice bus to Harrisburg. United with a group of activists from One Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the PA Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), Action United, Yinzercation, SEIU and 32BJ, they were ready to bring a message about education funding and sustainable community schools to the state capital.

This CAPA group got its start when Margaret (Meggie) Booth, president of her National Arts Honor Society, and fellow CAPA student William Grim, decided that one of their projects this year would be using art to advocate for more state funding. They made over 100 watercolor postcards, and asked their classmates to write on the other side of the postcard about why the arts are important. For the action on Thursday the CAPA students fashioned these postcards into a festive mobile banner, and presented it to our new Governor, who seemed thrilled with their efforts – and tweeted it out under his own name!

Gov.Wolf Gives Pgh Students Thumbs Up!

On the bus back to Pittsburgh Margaret and Will reflected on their day in Harrisburg.

Meggie Booth – Advocate & Speaker:

As soon as we entered the rotunda of the capitol building, I was amazed by the breathtaking ornate beauty. An elegant marble staircase sat in the middle with gold, silver and glass twisting through every inch of the room. Fluid murals ascended towards the ceiling, directing our eyes upwards. And then, there was the most beautiful sight of them all. The beauty of ordinary faces glistened. The faces of workers, parents, students, constituents. Our voices blended together to form a harmony that demanded an effort to build healthier communities. Our beauty decorated the capital, emulating the words “Wise And Just,” scripted on the ceiling.

Fellow CAPA students and I were there to represent the arts. We wanted to emphasize the importance of arts when talking about a quality education. I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to speak during the rally. This opportunity was both frightening and empowering. The crowd was full of optimism as energy spilled from their smiles. People shouted and shook their heads in agreement. We chanted “Enough is enough,” “When we fight, we win,” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”

For me, the most powerful thing about this rally was how it truly encapsulated the power of the people, not just experienced lobbyists and organizers. This rally spoke to the fact that problems in the world cannot be addressed without conversations and collaboration with those most directly affected. Today, it was the people who raised their voices. Today, the people were heard.

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Pittsburgh CAPA students, left to right: William Grimm, Andrew Lowery, Sarah Hudson, Meggie Booth, and Maya Bingham. [Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Pittsburgh CAPA students, left to right: William Grimm, Andrew Lowery, Sarah Hudson, Meggie Booth, and Maya Bingham. [Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Will Grimm – Advocate & Constituent:

The people were heard by representatives, politicians, and perhaps most importantly, Governor Tom Wolf himself. Meggie and I, along with other CAPA students, had each member of the student body state the importance of the arts in schools on a postcard. These cards were first presented to the Pittsburgh Public School Board in early December and then again today in Harrisburg.

The cards, each of which has a hand painted design, were strung in groups of ten and attached to two poles. This was an airy yet influential visual that shared student voices. We had originally planned to display this with the other visuals at the rally but arrived to the news that it would be gifted directly to the Governor.

The CAPA group, along with organizers from OnePittsburgh, headed to the official chambers anticipating the Governor. We were instead greeted with his advisors who assured us that it would go to the right place. To our surprise, it did. A few hours later, Tom Wolf shared an image of himself with our project, thanking us for sharing our voices. Our group hooted and hollered—we had been heard.

Having political leaders that listen to their people is the first step in creating change. When everyone—the students, teachers, workers, organizers, parents—stood together, it was evident we are following this path. Citizens are rising and this generation is acting for the benefit of the next. Being in a room packed with fellow activists was an honestly moving experience. We united as one and as a result, the students of CAPA were heard. Our opinions were shared, our work was validated, and our vision unmasked.


Thank you, Will, Andrew, Sarah, Meggie, and Maya! Finally, I leave you with more pictures from Yinzercation steering committee member Pam Harbin, who went to Harrisburg with the students, to fight for fair and adequate education funding for all our schools. Thank you, Pam!

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Look at that Great Public Schools Pittsburgh banner!

Look at that Great Public Schools Pittsburgh banner!


Our Amicus Brief in the State Funding Lawsuit

Did you know that there is a current lawsuit against the state to fund our schools? The Education Law Center (ELC) and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia brought the suit last fall on behalf of six school districts, seven parents, and two statewide associations accusing the state of failing to uphold Pennsylvania’s constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education. The state is arguing that the case should be thrown out and there is a key court date coming up on March 11th.

Yinzercation has joined with other grassroots organizations to submit an amicus (meaning “friend of the court”) brief demonstrating the reasons this case ought to move forward. I will include the full Statement of Harm we were asked to file in support of the brief below. (Click here for the full amicus brief, which was delivered on Tuesday.) For more information about the lawsuit, including an easy-to-read FAQ, visit the Pennsylvania School Funding Litigation website.

If you would like to attend the oral arguments in the case, you are invited to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg (601 Commonwealth Avenue, Courtroom 5001) on Wednesday, March 11th at 9:30AM. As the ELC explains, “this is a historic case challenging the legislature’s failure to adequately support and maintain Pennsylvania’s public school system.” The suit “asks the Court to ensure that all students — including those living in low-wealth districts — have the basic resources they need to meet state academic standards. We ask the court to hear this case and enforce the rights of our children to a “thorough and efficient” system of public education as guaranteed to them by our state constitution.” If you plan to attend or have questions, please contact Spencer Malloy at

Here is the information Yinzercation submitted to support the arguments in this important case:

Statement of Harm

Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom five of all states in the proportion of funding provided by the state to public schools. This under-funding, combined with four years of de-funding in the 2011-2015 fiscal budgets, has pushed responsibility for supporting public education down on local municipalities, which have been forced to cut programs and staff. In its most recent survey of the state’s 500 school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) found that:[i]

  • 90% of school districts have cut staff, and more than 40% of districts have already, or plan to, cut more teachers.
  • 64% of districts have increased class size since the historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest.
  • Over half the districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs next year. The most frequently cited cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%).
  • Students will lose extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee, in over a third of the districts.
  • The vast majority of school districts report that their costs are going up because of un-funded state mandates (such as the administration of high-stakes testing).
  • In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenues (property taxes) to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over 75% of school districts will increase property taxes next year (that’s more than any in the past five years).

The over-reliance on local resources such as property taxes to support education exacerbates inequity in school funding as poor districts struggle to meet basic needs. In addition, because the state’s budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts, Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable children have been harmed the most. For example, class sizes have increased more in high poverty districts while reading and math scores have declined the most for students living in poverty.[ii]


[Source: PSEA analysis, 8-25-14]

Yinzercation’s analysis of data for Allegheny County supports the finding that on a per-student basis, the poorest school districts have been impacted the most by state budget cuts. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a list of nine other high-poverty school districts. Race is a crucial factor, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Those districts harmed the least by state budgets cuts in the county include those in the wealthiest suburban areas, including Upper St. Clair, which actually gained $4 on a per-student basis during this time period.



In order to deal with the under-funding of their schools, poor districts have been forced to slash line items directly affecting students and their classrooms. For example, in 2012, Pittsburgh furloughed 285 teachers and educators. To put this in context, in total between 2008 and 2013, Pittsburgh students lost:

  • 17 percent of their teachers,
  • 45 percent of their librarians,
  • 35 percent of their paraprofessionals and support staff, and
  • 20 percent of their guidance counselors and psychological personnel.[iii]

Similarly, this school year, Wilkinsburg – a predominantly low-income, African-American school district adjacent to Pittsburgh – eliminated 18 teachers, amounting to a full 14% of its faculty. This was in addition to the 13 teachers and staff members who were furloughed last year.[iv]

Students in these districts are some of the poorest in the county, yet have lost critical education programs. Some examples illustrate the actual impact on kids:

  • Pittsburgh Colfax K-8, a Title I school with one of the largest achievement gaps in the city, eliminated its after school and Saturday tutoring program.
  • Some classes grew to 39 or more students.
  • This school also cut its middle level choral program and baseball team, and delayed instruction for instrumental students at the elementary level.
  • Pittsburgh Manchester, a Title I school with 94% students of color, has a brand new library built by the community but students cannot check out books because there is no regular librarian.
  • Parents and teachers at Pittsburgh Linden K-5 provide paper for photocopies and other basic supplies.
  • Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, a magnet school for creative and performing arts, eliminated sculpture classes for visual art students and solo lessons for instrumental students (a cornerstone of instruction in those fields).
  • There aren’t enough math textbooks for the students at Pittsburgh Allderdice high school.
  • The historic marching band at Pittsburgh Westinghouse high school was not able to purchase drumsticks or replace 15-year-old uniforms.
  • The district eliminated its Parent Engagement Specialists who worked with the most marginalized students and their families: this position had been especially effective at schools serving children bussed from distant communities (the result of a long pattern of school closures in poor neighborhoods and communities of color).
  • In 2014, Pittsburgh announced plans to cut additional world language classes, with schools eliminating language offerings entirely or seriously reducing courses.
  • The graphic on the following page offers additional impact statements from parents, students, teachers, and community members about the effect of cuts in Pittsburgh’s schools due to inadequate state funding.[v]

Inadequate state funding for school districts also leads to inequities within poorer districts, as some individual schools have access to community resources while others do not. For instance, one school on Pittsburgh’s East End has an active parent organization that annually raises over $60,000 to support educational field trips, student activities, classroom technology, and basic supplies – items that wealthier school districts are able to provide without relying on volunteer donations. Yet parents at other city schools struggle to raise similar donations leading to wide variation in the availability of crucial educational programs and enrichment opportunities for students within the same district. Adequate and equitable state funding for public education is crucial to address such inequities within and between school districts and to eliminate the harmful impacts on our most vulnerable children.


[i] PASA-PASBO report, “Continued Cuts: The Fourth Annual Report on School District Budgets,” June 2014. []

[ii] PSEA report, “Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence,” August 2014. []

[iii] Pittsburgh Board of Public Education, “Financial Statements, Final Budget,” August 2013.

[iv] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 5, 2014. []

[v] Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report, “Creating a District of Last Resort,” October 2013. []

Push-Out is Gendered, Too

The weather has been messing up everyone’s plans lately. But the community meeting about school push-out has been re-scheduled for this Saturday, February 28th. Hosted by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, the Education Law Center, and the Center for Third World Organizing, the conversation will run from 10AM-12PM at the Kingsley Center in East Liberty. Speakers will include Sara Goodkind (a Yinzercation steering committee member) and Jeff Shook, both from the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh.

At least the delay bought some extra time for media attention to this important issue. Did you catch the banner headline article about the upcoming meeting in Monday’s Post-Gazette at the top of the front page? [Post-Gazette, 2-23-15]

While we are talking about ways to reduce the disproportionate use of school discipline leading to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” let’s remember to include gender in that conversation. A report released earlier this month by the African American Policy Forum and the Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies revealed some stunning new comparative data showing the impact of harsh disciplinary actions on girls of color. While the focus tends to be on black boys, who are suspended three times as often as white boys, nationally black girls are suspended six times more than white girls. [Report, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected]

Kimberlé Crenshaw, the report’s lead author and a professor of law at both UCLA and Columbia, explains, “As public concern mounts for the needs of men and boys of color through initiatives like the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper, we must challenge the assumption that the lives of girls and women—who are often left out of the national conversation—are not also at risk.” She argues that we need an intersectional approach to think about how social categories such as race, class, and gender overlap, creating inequality and oppression on multiple levels.

The report, which looked closely at students in New York and Boston, also found:

  • “In New York, the number of disciplinary cases involving black girls was more than 10 times more than those involving their white counterparts and the number of cases involving black boys was six times the number of those involving white boys, despite there being only twice as many black students as white students.
  • In Boston, the number of disciplinary cases involving black girls was more than 11 times more than those involving their white counterparts while the number of cases involving black boys was approximately eight times those involving white boys, despite there being less than three times as many black students as white students.
  • Rates of expulsion were even more strikingly disproportionate between black and white students, especially among girls.”

Please join this important conversation!

2.28.15 turnout.childcare

Fund Our Schools

Like a breath of fresh spring air in the middle of the winter, Gov. Tom Wolf this week talked about his plan to restore funding to our schools. After touring an elementary school on Wednesday morning, he announced a proposal to impose the 5 percent natural gas extraction tax that he promised during his campaign. He estimated it would raise about $1 billion in the first year and said the “lion’s share” would be dedicated to education – which would put the figure close to what Gov. Corbett cut from our schools.

Gov. Wolf explained, “We have to make sure that we’re funding schools adequately, and this is a source of funding that’s fair for Pennsylvanians. … We have the natural resources to actually do something about the problem here.” [Post-Gazette, PowerSource, 2-12-15] Further underscoring the fact that he really does get the problem, Gov. Wolf noted:

The commonwealth ranks 45th in the nation in percentage of state funding for public education, and as a result, we have seen larger class sizes, fewer teachers, and vital program cuts. These cuts have made it more difficult for students to get a strong education in Pennsylvania’s public schools. This is the right thing to do for our children and our economy and to move Pennsylvania forward. [ 2-11-15]

While these words are welcome relief after four years of draconian cuts that continue to harm our kids and schools, Gov. Wolf faces an uphill battle in the legislature. Although the extraction tax is modeled on neighboring West Virginia’s – and every other mineral rich state in the nation taxes these resources – the Marcellus Shale industry has been crying foul and lining up its many supporters in Harrisburg.

Before Gov. Wolf announces his proposed budget on March 3rd, it’s crucial that our legislators hear from us. Fortunately, our colleagues at OnePittsburgh are making that easy: please GET ON THE BUS to Harrisburg to rally for a fair budget and get the money back for our schools. Pittsburgh will send at least three buses to join the hundreds of others converging on the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 26th. It’s fun and all the details are taken care of: you just have to GET ON THE BUS. Click here to register.

We know these bus trips matter and that they work. As we’ve discovered walking the halls of the capitol building, our legislators hear from a steady stream of paid lobbyists (some of whom had the brass to mock out loud a bunch of us moms and kids when we were there back in June). We won a major battle getting Gov. Wolf into office, but if we want the money back for our schools, we still need to win over our legislators. Someone’s gotta go to Harrisburg – can you?

Stop the Push Out

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

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

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

GPS Push Out Community Meeting

High-Stakes-Testing in National and Local Spotlight

Are they or aren’t they? As the U.S. Senate debates re-authorization of the No Child Left Behind act, they have waffled on eliminating the federal mandate for annual high-stakes-testing. Just two weeks ago, Education Week gave opponents of required testing some hope when they reported:

Although members of the Senate education committee agreed at a hearing Tuesday that teacher evaluations are essential for a thriving public education system, it’s unlikely that the forthcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will include specific requirements. Republicans, including Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Washington shouldn’t mandate such policies, while Democrats, including ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., were wary of increasing the role student test scores play in evaluations and how those evaluations are used to compensate teachers. [Education Week, 1-27-15]

But yesterday, Politico reported, “Now that Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray are working together on a No Child Left Behind bill, it’s all but certain that any deal will keep the federal annual testing mandate.” This despite massive push-back by parents across the country who point to the dramatic expansion of testing and test culture, the elimination of non-tested subjects, the loss of learning time, and a host of negative impacts on kids, teachers, and schools. Just this weekend, Save Our Schools New Jersey mobilized over 1,000 people to email their representatives about rolling back the federal testing requirement, saying it’s time to “stop using test scores to punish students, teachers and public schools.” [Politico, 2-9-15]

With support for high-stakes-testing going all the way to the top of both political parties, the White House, and the Department of Education, parents and others concerned about the over-use and mis-use of testing face a continued state by state organizing strategy. Fortunately, they are increasingly aided by brave teachers, principals, and superintendents speaking out about the hazards of high-stakes-testing. Did you catch the fantastic op-ed last week by Superintendent Thomas Ralston of the Avonworth School District, right here outside Pittsburgh? (See below for complete transcript.) That piece went viral from the Post-Gazette web site, where it had 2.3k “likes” on Facebook, and counting!

Want to learn more about high-stakes-testing? This Friday, our colleagues at the League of Women Voters are hosting a meeting devoted to the update of the organization’s State Education Policy Position. They will discuss high-stakes-testing and develop a consensus to be submitted to the membership at their PA State Convention in June. The public is welcome to attend and contribute to the discussion (however only League members will be able to vote on the consensus). The Central Pittsburgh Unit will meet at the Squirrel Hill Library, Friday, February 13th at 1 pm.

Now I leave you with these wise words from Superintendent Ralston:

Make Our Kids Future-Ready; Enough with the Standardized Testing [Post-Gazette, 1-1-15]

Back in November, I was one of several school superintendents from Western Pennsylvania fortunate enough to be invited to Washington, D.C., along with colleagues from across the United States to participate in the Future Ready Pledge.

The day included meetings with President Barack Obama and with officials from the U.S. Department of Education, including secretary Arne Duncan. Time for collaboration was also built into the day as the superintendents shared success stories, some from districts in truly desperate situations, and brainstormed about how to meet challenges with creative, innovative solutions.

The pinnacle of the day was taking the Future Ready Pledge, led by Mr. Obama, as we dedicated ourselves to employ digital learning tools to prepare students for success in college, career and citizenship. The experience was invigorating and energizing, truly a capstone of my 25 years as an educator.

Then, last month, I was disappointed to see Mr. Duncan reaffirm his support for annual standardized testing of all American schoolchildren in grades 3 to 8 and in high school. This announcement runs counter to our pledge to be future-ready.

The age of standardized testing has de-emphasized creativity and innovation by overly relying on test performance as a criterion of school and student success. This emphasis has resulted in limiting school curricula, robbing students of experience with the arts and other non-tested subjects.

Mr. Duncan has said that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” His reaffirmation for the need for continual annual testing contradicts this previous statement.

Let me be clear, my colleagues and I embrace assessment. It is essential to inform instruction and allow educators to respond to the needs of their students. However, it should be done daily to appropriately challenge and support each student. Likewise, broader periodic assessments provide children with multiple ways to demonstrate what they know and can do.

Standardized tests do not acknowledge the developmental differences in children. When we endorse them we subscribe to the belief that all children learn the same way and at the same rate.

Likewise, standardized tests fail to measure the skills that employers have identified as essential for success now and in the future: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

In addition, as long as standardized-test performance is used as the primary method of judging the success of schools, it will be the primary educational focus of most schools, especially ones that struggle in our most challenged communities.

Alternatives to annual standardized testing of all students to measure school performance do exist. Finland, for example, which has one of the highest-ranked public education systems in the world, randomly selects schools for assessment. The results are confidential, so as not to be punitive in nature.

Singapore, another nation universally lauded for its educational performance, invests heavily in professional development and mentoring of novice teachers as a proactive strategy, rather than using standardized tests to shame schools and teachers.

Even China, which has traditionally valued standardized tests to determine the future success of its students, is realizing that this approach is folly and is working diligently to reduce the burden of testing and instead focus on learning experiences that accentuate creativity.

Every year in the United States, important data on student and school performance is gathered. Students pursuing post-secondary education participate in college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT. Those who choose vocational fields are assessed with the NOCTI exam once they have concluded their programs.

Across the United States, graduation and attendance data are gathered and schools are randomly selected to participate in the National Assessment for Educational Progress. This allows schools to measure and compare academic progress. This assessment, given in grades 4, 8 and 12, provides valuable data on the same subjects that are tested under the federal annual-testing guidelines.

With the overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on the horizon, education in America is at a critical crossroads. Rather than continue with an iteration of the act that brought us No Child Left Behind in 2000, I hope it is reauthorized in a way that captures the essence of the Future Ready Pledge.

It is time for our government officials to display courage and do what is best for children. The rest of us must make sure our voices are heard as we demand that all children receive creative and engaging learning experiences that will best prepare them for the opportunities of the future.

The question remains: Are we working to be future-ready?

I am, Secretary Duncan. How about you?

Thomas Ralston is superintendent of the Avonworth School District (

Lynda Wrenn for School Board

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 10 Education Justice Wins of 2014

It’s almost the New Year and time for making lists. As we say goodbye to 2014, here is our list of the top ten education justice victories of the year:

1.  Tom Wolf elected Governor. In an election year that saw few bright spots for public education around the country, Pennsylvania stood out with a stellar win. Many folks worked for years on this governor’s race. Yinzercation itself started three years ago in response to Governor Corbett’s disastrous budget cuts and members of our collective have logged thousands of hours, collaborating with others around the state, to elect a pro-public education leader. One of the highlights of the campaign was our Education Debate, which allowed voters to hear from all of the Democratic candidates in-depth on education issues. Co-hosted with PIIN and broadcast by media partner WPXI around the state, the debate attracted 500 people in the live audience and included questions submitted by public school students presented by a community panel. [“Debate by the Numbers”]

Tom Wolf speaking at our Education Debate in April 2014.

Governor-elect Tom Wolf speaking at our Education Debate in April 2014.

2.  Education ranked #1 voter issue in PA. As a result of the incredible work of our grassroots movement, education jumped for the first time into the top spot on voters’ list of concerns. Even if Tom Wolf had not won, this would have been a major achievement in itself. Pushing education to the front of the public agenda was a bottom up effort, the result of countless trips to the state capitol, community meetings, rallies, demonstrations, letters to the editor, op eds, blog posts, TV appearances, media interviews, and more. [For just one 2014 example of our movement in action, see “Taking it to Harrisburg”]

Parents, students, and teachers from Southwest PA went to Harrisburg in June 2014 to talk about education funding.

Parents, students, and teachers from Southwest PA went to Harrisburg in June 2014 to talk about education funding.


Protesting Gov. Corbett’s cuts to public education during one of his visits to the city.

3.  Featured in Bob Herbert’s new book. The award winning, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert came to Pittsburgh to conduct research for his book, Losing our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. He was so taken with our local movement that he wound up writing three whole chapters on public education! He then graciously came back to the ‘burgh so we could host the national launch of his book. [“10 Reasons to See Bob Herbert”] The event, moderated by Post-Gazette columnist and editorial board member Tony Norman, drew over 300 people and generated more media buzz about education justice. [“Celebrating Hope, Action, and Change”]

Bob Herbert emphasized the need to grassroots activism and a coordinated effort to fight income inequality and for good jobs.

Tony Norman interviewed Bob Herbert for the national launch of his new book, featuring a portrait of our movement.

4.  Rolled back high-stakes testing. The Pittsburgh Public Schools agreed to reduce high-stakes standardized testing for students in grades K-5, returning 41.5 periods of instructional time to our children. That comes to 33 hours for real learning rather than test taking, and does not even count the associated reduction in test-prep. [“33 More Hours for Learning”] Although there is far more work to be done, this was a great first step, and the direct result of conversations we hosted in the community, in social media, and with the school board and the school district. As part of that work, we sponsored the Pittsburgh premiere of the documentary “Standardized.” [“Millions Spent, No Results”] Afterwards, we worked with one audience member, Dr. Greg Taranto – a Pennsylvania middle school teacher of the year award winner – who wrote an op-ed that went viral. [“Slay the Testing Beast,” Post-Gazette, 3-26-14] We developed nine “Strategies to Reduce High Stakes Testing,” and had two articles published on testing in the Washington Post. [“High Stakes for Students” and “Children are Not Guinea Pigs”]

Pittsburgh Allderdice teachers organized their own literature table about learning and testing

Pittsburgh teachers organized their own literature table about learning and testing at the Pittsburgh premiere of “Standardized.”

5.  Saved PE. After we raised questions about proposed cuts to physical education requirements and the community spoke out at a school board hearing, the district decided not to halve the number of required high school PE credits. This would have effectively made gym a required class for only first and second year students, allegedly to free up time for test prep and alleviate some scheduling conflicts. But it would have also likely led to further reductions in teaching staff and exacerbated inequity in our schools. Not to mention the fact that our children are not getting nearly enough exercise as it is and this would have been a step backwards in the fight against childhood obesity. [“Cutting PE” and “Score! Save!”]

6.  Launched community schools campaign. The coalition Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh released a report outlining a vision for public education in the city and calling for the implementation of a community schools model. The group then got a grant from the Heinz Foundations to take over thirty people to a national conference in Cincinnati to learn more about how community schools work around the country. The conference delegation included school board members, community leaders, parents, and representatives from the mayor’s office. GPS then hosted a community meeting to continue the conversation in the city. [“Reporting Back on Community Schools”] The idea of community schools appears to be gaining wide support and is even the centerpiece of a major grant proposal submitted this year by the district. This was a big step forward for a new way of thinking about our public schools, which could tremendously benefit students, families, and entire communities.

Members of the Pittsburgh delegation get ready to board the bus for Cincinnati!

Members of the Pittsburgh delegation that attended the community schools conference in Cincinnati.

7.  Heard many new student voices. Students are inspiring. And when they speak about their education, adults listen. This was a great year for lifting up emerging student voices: most recently, Pittsburgh Allderdice students organized and testified at the school board about the need for libraries and professional librarians. We also worked with Pittsburgh CAPA students who organized their peers and presented moving testimony to the board about cuts to arts education in the district. Even the Washington Post was impressed and picked up their story! [“All They Want for Christmas … is Art Education”] Earlier in the year, TeenBloc students successfully introduced a Student Bill of Rights into the district’s Code of Student Conduct. Students were also key leaders in the planning of our Education Debate, spoke at our rallies, and participated in our trip to Harrisburg, among other actions.

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

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

8.  Renewed focus on equitable discipline. As outlined in an ACLU report last year, inequality in school discipline and policing policies disproportionately impacts students of color, students with disabilities, and students living in our most struggling communities. This process of student push-out feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. In a win for Pittsburgh students, the Education Law Center worked with the district to develop changes to the Code of Student Conduct that will eliminate “zero tolerance” policies and provide protection for students of all sexual and gender identity expressions.

9.  Mayor’s Task Force on Education. After a delayed start and some rocky process issues, Mayor Peduto’s Task Force on Education laid some solid groundwork for collaboration between the city and the school district. While some feared the mayor and city council were overstepping their authority to look at school matters, many in the community supported this effort to imagine big solutions and opportunities for new partnerships that can benefit students and entire communities alike. I was honored to serve on the Task Force and remain optimistic about this chance to “think outside the box” and move beyond the silos that prevent cooperation on such tangled issues as poverty, racism, housing segregation, neighborhood gentrification, and financial challenges. A vibrant, healthy Pittsburgh requires great public schools for all students and the school district cannot address all of the issues impacting student learning on its own. I am pleased that City Council plans to make the Task Force into a standing commission to continue this work. [“Mayor’s Task Force on Education”]

Mayor Peduto, Education chief Dr. Porter, and two of the amazing young people on the Task Force for Education.

Mayor Peduto, Education chief Dr. Porter, and two of the amazing young people on the Task Force for Education.

10.  Pittsburgh connected to national education justice work. This was a banner year for our city to shine on the national education justice scene, which itself is growing with a number of new organizations and coalitions. For example, three Yinzercation steering committee members represented Pittsburgh, speaking on panels at the inaugural conference of the Network for Public Education in Austin back in March. [“We Are Many”] Yinzercation helped to launch the national Education Bloggers Network, which now has over 200 members. Through GPS we participated in a national meeting of the new coalition, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, in D.C. and also coordinated a national week of action to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which included our local rally at Freedom Corner in the Hill District. [“Still Black and White After Brown”] In addition, a diverse group of local education organizations and leaders collaborated on a pretty fantastic bid to bring the national Free Minds, Free People education justice conference to Pittsburgh. We were one of the final two locations under consideration – and while Oakland, CA won, our proposal brought together groups that don’t always agree for some serious social justice work together. Last but not least, we continued to have many of our articles picked up by the national media and Pittsburgh’s education justice work was featured prominently in a several national stories.

"Remember the Promise"

At the rally to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

Happy New Year! May 2015 bring many more wins for students, our public schools, and education justice.

All They Want for Christmas … is Art Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Memoriam: Tony Woods

We lost an amazing man this week in the struggle for education justice for all our children. Kindergarten teacher extraordinaire Tony Woods will be dearly missed by the legions of families whose lives he touched in over 25 years of teaching in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Tony Woods at one of the coldest rallies we've held (!), December 2013, outside Governor Corbett's office in downtown Pittsburgh.

Tony Woods at one of the coldest rallies we’ve held (!), December 2013, outside Governor Corbett’s office in downtown Pittsburgh.

As his friend and colleague, Kipp Dawson, reminds us, “Tony will be with us so long as we love, and fight for, all children.” He told her just a few weeks ago, “The love thing goes without saying. Nothing needs to be done to prove that. Just keep advocating for those kids. That has always been my passion and to know it’s going on keeps the love alive.”

A celebration of Tony’s life will be held tomorrow, Saturday, December 7th, at 11AM at First United Methodist Church of Pittsburgh (5401 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232). The family requests that donations be made to The Pitt Men’s Study or Shepherd Wellness Community.

Tony’s Pastor, Gail Ransom, shared this about him: “Tony was a spiritual warrior who always led from his heart. And that heart was an expression of divine passion for the young, the disenfranchised, the lost, and the left-behind. He was a protector, a nurturer, a mentor ….”

One of the things I loved about Tony was his ever-present, warm smile. His face would just light up when he saw you. He will help me remember that the path to education justice is a long one and that it helps to keep smiling.

Tony Woods with fellow Colfax teachers on our bus trip to Harrisburg to rally for restored funding for our schools, June 2013.

Tony Woods with fellow Colfax teachers on our bus trip to Harrisburg to rally for restored funding for our schools, June 2013.

Here is Tony’s obituary:

Age 63, of Pittsburgh, passed away Sunday, November 30, 2014, with friends and family by his side. Born November 13, 1951, he is the son of the late Samuel William and Patti Palmer Woods; brother of the late Laurence Woods; he is survived by his loving husband, Ron; he is the esteemed brother of William, David, Richard and Charles; and sisters, Vicki Schroeder of Albuquerque, NM and Penny Elliot of Washington, PA; Tony is also survived by several adoring nieces and nephews. He will be dearly missed by his family and the numerous friends made over the years. Tony was a long time member of the Recovery Community. “He was devotedly involved in the social justice and labor movement.” “He was a bright light in a world of hatred and darkness.” Tony received his undergraduate degree from Carlow College in Early Childhood Education and a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Pittsburgh. Tony spent over 25 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, retiring in January 2014. Until his illness, Tony worked with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Tony was a well-loved, respected, and admired Kindergarten teacher at Spring Hill, Morningside, King, and Colfax Schools. Tony was a light for all students, a mentor, friend to fellow teachers, and an active, vocal advocate for children. As one teacher said, “Tony is the Lorax of Education; he speaks for all children. ” These are the truest words, spoken about this loving, warm, dedicated teacher, and friend. A profound thank you to the staff of The Center for Compassionate Care – Canterbury Place, for their care, support, and compassion during his stay. “HE WAS LOVED BY ALL AND PRAISED BY MANY.”