In an effort to address achievement disparities among African-American students, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture recently hosted the Educational Town Hall Panel Discussion, bringing in guest speaker Steve Perry, founder of Capital Preparator Magnet School and a CNN education contributor.

In an interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier, Perry previewed his appearance at the AWC with a sweeping indictment of education reform efforts in public schools.

STEVE PERRY (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“Education reform is a lie. It never happens,” Perry said. “You need to continue to shut schools down; shut failing schools down. I am against failing schools. I am in favor of public schools existing. I run a public school.”

Perry was one of three panelists at the AWC event sponsored by Sigma Pi Phi, Rho Boule and EQT Sept. 24. Joining him were Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane, Urban League President and CEO Esther Bush and Dean Larry Davis from the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, who served as the event’s facilitator.

“Nationally less than 50 percent of Black males graduate from high school,” Davis said. “The education deficit being experienced by youth contributes to the cycle of poverty. We all know that poverty is a huge barrier to educational success and so the cycle continues.”

The overwhelming consensus among Perry’s peers was that the low socioeconomic status of Black students attending urban schools is a major contributing factor for low achievement rates.

“The effect of violence is a serious barrier to academic achievement for urban youth. Poverty is so very significant. I’m not here to talk about catching up with White students,” Bush said. “The issue of poverty is very real and I will never use that as an excuse, but you need to live in the reality.”

In his comments prior to and during the discussion, Perry said schools identify students as uneducatable because of their socioeconomic background, but then still demand to be paid for not educating students, all while blaming students for their low achievement.

“Poverty is yet another one of the excuses used to explain why our schools aren’t educating your children. If you give a poor kid a phone and you give a rich kid a phone, they can do the same things on it,” Perry said. “I’m one of those people who hold teachers fully accountable. We are paying teachers to perform a subject, not teach a subject. We’ll take your (achievement) growth conversation and throw it away because basically it’s you patting yourself on the back for sucking (failing) less than you did the year before. The only way for us to stop the achievement gap is for parents to rise up. The achievement gap is driven by the school you attend, not the child you send.”

Perry also addressed the stereotypes that parents with students in urban schools don’t care about their child’s education and that African-American boys don’t value education.

“I know that Black men see education as important. It’s about accessibility. Black men attend some of the worst schools and they are the most marginalized group. These same boys can be convinced to stand in the August heat and run up and down hills with the hope of college,” Perry said. “Never met a parent who doesn’t care about education, they just don’t have options. You’re asking them to choose between a failing dangerous school or a dangerous failing school their child already goes to. There’s a myth that some parents don’t care about their kids education. Every single good school has a waiting list. How’d they get the waiting list if parents don’t care? If you ask parents what are the best and the worst schools, I bet they’ll tell you what the schools are. Black parents care.”

Still few of the approximately 50 people in the AWC auditorium seemed to be parents with many representing education institutions or community activism organizations. Lane said while the district is making strides to hold teachers more accountable, parent engagement is also a key focus.

“When I talk to teachers they begin telling me what parents need to do and when I talk to families they begin telling me what teachers need to do. Effective teaching is critically important; it’s the heart of the matter. Without effective teaching, community support alone isn’t going to get us there,” Lane said. “We want to engage our community and a lot of the people we want to talk to we don’t get to. One of the key things is having an activity where kids are doing something because parents come out for their kids. This is one of the things we struggle with.”

As a proponent of school choice, Perry advocated for school voucher legislation. However, others have raised concerns about such legislation and its ability to positively impact Black students in the inner city.

“If you look at post secondary education in America, you’ll find it’s a full school choice system and we provide vouchers for students to attend; it’s called financial aid. Interestingly enough there’s a college for everyone. For those who think it would be unruly, they need to only look at Medicaid, food stamps, etc. As a Pittsburgh resident you pay your taxes and you’re paying for a seat in a school, you should be able to pick which school you send your child too,” Perry said. “I think a good school is determined by its ability to effectively teach the students in it. The best school is a school where your kid feels they matter. There’s no single good school.”

“We need a broader discussion of school choice and closing failing schools. I’m an advocate of fixing failing schools,” said Sale Udin, chair of the Hill District Education Committee who attended the discussion. “I don’t think parents have the faculties to take advantage of the vouchers or to close down schools. We need to figure out what we’re going to do for all of our children, not just the ones who are lucky enough to have parents who can take advantage of vouchers.”

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