Educator challenges city to demand more from their schools

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It takes a certain level of courage to criticize a group of people who have hired you to serve as the keynote speaker at their annual celebration. Still, at the Pittsburgh Chapter, National Black MBA Association’s 2010 Scholarship and Recognition Gala, guest speaker Steve Perry, Ed.D did just that.

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HARSH CRITIC—Steve Perry delights and stuns the audience with quick jokes and biting facts about Pittsburgh education. (Photo by Rossano P. Stewart) See photos on C3.

“It’s an absolute abomination that children in this city are so far behind. In this city that has such pride and purpose, what the devil is going on with your schools?” said Perry, the founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn. “You can’t continue to give scholarships to children when they are being sent to college unprepared.”

At the annual gala on Oct. 9, Perry’s humor and wit kept the audience laughing between his criticism of the Pittsburgh Public School System and Pennsylvania as a whole. According to Perry, the Pittsburgh Public School System ranks 471 out of Pennsylvania’s 500 schools.

“That’s last place in case you’re not paying attention. You hear people say it could be worse. I don’t want to be there if it’s worse,” Perry said. “When I tell children that they can make the most of any school, I’m kind of lying to them. You must begin to look at the fact that all across the country schools are popping up that are changing children’s lives, everywhere but here.”

During his speech, Perry focused heavily on one component of education as the key to student success. Despite national controversy about teacher reform, Perry said teacher excellence is the defining factor in successful schools.

“There’s something I do; you could call it career counseling. I fire people. When we pay you to manage our money, we expect you to make us more money. When you send your children to school, you expect the teachers to educate them,” Perry said. “You hear me talking about teachers unions because they need to be ousted. Fundamental reform means you have to fire lots of people. The research is clear that the most important person in a child’s academic career is their teacher. A great teacher is like an artist. There can be no good teachers in the building if there are bad teachers.”

More than 80 percent of the students at Perry’s magnet school are African-American and come from predominantly low-income families. Since 2006 the school has boasted a 100 percent college acceptance rate.

“They say if the parents were more involved, we’d have better schools. Nothing makes me more annoyed than when a person doesn’t take care of their kids,” Perry said. “I’m here to tell you that despite these circumstances we’re still sending 100 percent of our students to college and it’s not because of parent involvement.”

Despite their sting, Perry’s words were welcomed by the event’s organizers, including co-chair Franco Harris, a former Pittsburgh Steeler and local business owner. Along with many others, he focused on the education and its power to improve economic conditions in his remarks to the audience.

“I found that sports prepared me for more than just football. What you learn in sports, like education, you carry it with you all the way,” Harris said. “Right now there is far too much economic inequality and it’s going to take all of us to change that.”

The gala awarded 23 students with $150,000 in scholarships and recognized local trailblazers in leadership, education and entrepreneurship.

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