A study produced by Rand Corp. in 2006 found that 50 percent of African-American males in the Pittsburgh Public School District do not graduate. As dire as those statistics might sound, only 28 percent of African-American male students in Philadelphia graduated from high school in the 2007-2008 school year.
The most recent study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education also found a significant racial achievement gap statewide. In Pennsylvania, only 53 percent of Black male students receive their high school diplomas, compared with 83 percent of their White peers.
“When we are having 28 percent of African-American males graduate we have to address this issue if we’re going to be able to compete,” said Congressman Joe Sestak. “This is about having fair opportunity. If we’re going to compete with India and China, we need to be educated.”
Sestak is currently running for the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate seat as the Democratic candidate. On Aug. 25, he convened an Education Crisis Panel in Philadelphia to discuss practical solutions in light of the recent graduation rate report.
“At the end of the day if someone doesn’t graduate high school they are four times as more likely to be incarcerated,” Sestak said. “The key here is we have to resolve this because we need them to be all they can be.”
In an interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier, Sestak said the solutions to Philadelphia’s problems, discussed by the panel, would also work in Pittsburgh. His top three priorities are improving teacher quality, putting more focus on early childhood education and addressing the overt and latent by-products of poverty.
“If you’re an African-American child living in Philadelphia you have a 45 percent chance of living in poverty. People don’t have the skills to apply for jobs,” Sestak said. “It doesn’t matter what race, give them a fair opportunity.”
In looking at successful examples of how to address these issues, Sestak pointed to the New Jersey Abbott Plan with increased hours of education, including on weekends and over the summer; continuous professional development for teachers; and greater investment in preschool preparation programs.
The most difficult and important of Sestak’s priorities is reducing the effects of poverty on children such as their exposure to violent neighborhoods and drugs and alcohol as well as working to provide them with some of the everyday necessities they lack. He said this factor could only be alleviated by addressing problems affecting the family as a whole, such as unemployment and crime.
Panelists with Sestak included Leon King, former prisons commissioner; Umar Abdullah-Johnson, school psychologist; Linda Burnette, executive director of Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program; and Gerald Wright, North Philadelphia Human Services Development Corp.