Over the last several weeks, Pittsburgh has been dealing with the fallout of the school board’s decision to hire a superintendent who they failed to properly vet and whose resume, as it turns out, was “fraught with errors” and contained several instances of plagiarism.
Folks in Pittsburgh – individual citizens, education advocates, civil rights groups, and civic leaders – were understandably upset and, if there is one thing I have learned in my short time living in the Steel City, Pittsburghers who are passionate about a cause are a force to be reckoned with. I have to say this was the most engaged I’d ever seen such a diverse group of people and organizations – from the Urban League to the white progressives in my neighborhood. Petitions were circulated, letters were written to the board and the newspapers, phone calls were made, groups and individuals testified at school board meetings and social media outlets were buzzing about this topic.
Folks were upset for good reason – hiring a superintendent is the single most important job a school board has and the board completely botched the process from the onset. (You can read more here, here, and here to learn how things unfolded). Despite the advocacy efforts of so many engaged Pittsburghers, the school board decided to double down on their decision and voted to keep the new superintendent. For me, the real win here was the level of civic engagement around the state of education in Pittsburgh and that has given me hope and inspiration.
Too often, I feel like people turn a blind eye to the egregious things that are happening in our public schools every single day. In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, there are many schools in which less than 25 percent of students are reading and doing math on grade level. In our district, only 7 percent of black 8th graders passed the state math exam and about half our schools rank in the lowest 15 percent of all Pennsylvania schools. Pittsburgh Public Schools is in crisis, and we need to demand better outcomes from our elected officials, just as we demanded a better process for finding our next superintendent.
A few months ago, a senior at Westinghouse Academy (a chronically underperforming district school) wrote a Facebook post in which he said that his senior class had been without a science teacher for months, and voiced his concern that he was not getting an adequate education and would not be prepared for life after high school. Sadly, unlike the outrage prompted by the superintendent search, the response from the media and the student’s principal was to dismiss his complaint and criticize the way in which he expressed his frustration. Whatever the facts may be surrounding the school’s personnel issue, I think we can all agree that when only 3 percent of the high school students at Westinghouse pass the state science exam, something is desperately wrong.
My hope is that our outrage and our collective advocacy will not be limited to highly publicized issues, like a flawed superintendent search, but that we will also come together to protest when students don’t have access to qualified teachers and aren’t being prepared for college and career. When we hear stories like the one at Westinghouse, let’s start a petition, write letters, and express our frustration on social media that far too many students in Pittsburgh are not getting the education they deserve. Let’s keep this engagement and momentum going as we continue to pressure the decision-makers to do what is right for our district and our students.