by Rachel Amankulor in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When I moved to Pittsburgh from New York City five years ago, everyone had the same piece of advice: Buy a house in Squirrel Hill or Shadyside because those neighborhoods are zoned for the “best” public schools.
I heeded this advice but soon learned that my kids were assigned to a school that had one of the widest racial achievement gaps in the entire school district. As parents of boys who are half-black, my husband and I decided that our neighborhood public school was not the right choice for our family.
My family is lucky. We have the means to make sure our children have the best educational options – whether that means moving to the “right” neighborhood or sending our children to private school. However, the reality is that many families in Pittsburgh are stuck in schools that are reinforcing existing inequities, rather than being passports to opportunity.
Last month, my organization, PennCAN, issued a report — “Opportunities Lost: The Urgent Need To Improve Pittsburgh’s Schools” — that takes an unflinching look at the dire state of our public schools. As discussed in our report, an overwhelming 78 percent of Pittsburgh’s public school students, both charter and district, attend a low-performing school, as defined by our state accountability system.
Black students in Pittsburgh are uniquely harmed by the city’s lack of quality public schools. Less than a third of black students in Pittsburgh Public Schools are reading at grade level and, in math, less than a fifth of black students are performing at grade level. Despite countless initiatives and investments over the past decade, PPS has made no progress in closing the district’s significant racial achievement gaps.
The fact that so many of our schools are struggling will have lasting consequences on the lives of our children and ultimately our communities. Only one out of every four ninth-graders in PPS will go on to earn a 2- or 4-year college degree. For black students at our highly segregated schools, college completion rates are far worse. At Westinghouse, for example, just 6 percent of ninth-graders will go on to earn a 2- or 4-year college degree.
If a predominately white school had these outcomes, the cries for change would be deafening. If we are not outraged by these statistics, then we either don’t care about the future of these children or we don’t believe that we can do better.
While our public school system remains stagnant, Pittsburgh’s economy is surging ahead. Hardly a week goes by that Pittsburgh is not heralded in the national media as the city of the future, a city of innovation with burgeoning new industries. However, the majority of public school students in Pittsburgh will not be able to take advantage of our city’s evolving 21st-century economy because they will be ill-equipped to meet employers’ needs for highly skilled labor and individuals with college and graduate degrees.
After a recent PennCAN event, at which we discussed the findings of our “Opportunities Lost” report, I had the chance to speak with Thomas, a junior from a low-performing neighborhood high school. We discussed his plans for the future, and he told me that he is working hard to graduate from high school and go on to earn a college degree. Listening to him describe what his school days are like was gut wrenching. He painted a picture of chaotic classrooms, courses taught by full-time substitutes and a revolving door of principals.
Thomas is acutely aware that he has to swim upstream to reach his goals. Unlike my children, he doesn’t have the option of moving to a neighborhood with better schools or attending a private school to escape an environment that’s failing to support or challenge him.
As an education advocate, it’s easy for me to explain why I think our public school system is broken. I can talk all day about the lack of leadership, low expectations, poor instruction, bureaucracies that inhibit innovation and special interests that are centered around adult needs rather than student needs. It’s much harder for me to look into the eyes of a 16-year-old with so much potential and try to explain why his school has failed him and why he doesn’t have access to the same opportunities as my boys.
The challenge is real but there’s reason for optimism. All across this country, and even here in Pittsburgh, there are schools that are proving that all students can achieve at high levels if given access to a great school. We know progress is possible but the question now is, do we have the will to relentlessly hold local officials accountable and demand more high-quality options? If the enthusiastic and diverse crowd of community advocates who turned the other day for PennCAN’s event is any indication, the answer is yes.
Rachel Amankulor is deputy director of policy for PennCAN, a statewide educational advocacy organization, and a resident of Shadyside.