The Community Empowerment Association town hall meeting “Whose Educating Our Black Children: The Culture of Silence,” convened education experts from around the Pittsburgh area. While the experts represented different schools of thought and different sectors of the education realm, all agreed on one thing.
“There’s a lot of models we know that are working,” said Rashad Byrdsong, CEA founder. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
The panelists at the discussion at Obama Academy on Feb. 11 said educators and researchers have data to show which programs and models are helping to reduce the achievement gap between Black and White students, and which ones aren’t. However they said administrators and board members in the Pittsburgh Public School District are not listening.
“Why can’t we ask the question of every candidate that comes to Pittsburgh, show me the evidence of how you’ve closed the racial achievement gap,” said Jerome Taylor, executive director of the Center for Family Excellence. “The district generally knows about our research and yet my phone has never rung.”
For Taylor, the best programs to model are PPS schools like Dilworth PreK-5, and Fulton PreK-5, which have received the designation of being named DAME-DAME schools, for their success in closing the racial achievement gap in predominately Black low-income settings. For other experts, like Sarah Jameela Martin, a former PPS teacher and administrator, school choice is the answer.
“We are in a crisis situation and fortunately or unfortunately we seem to rise during crisis and than simmer. This non-functioning district is not designed for us. There are some practical things we should be doing and planning for,” Martin said. “Twenty years ago, you couldn’t have convinced me that school choice was the best option, but now I know school choice is the best option for our African-American students in Pittsburgh.”
Representing the school district was Viola Burgess, the principal at Allegheny K-5. While she admitted there were clearly disparities in the district, she said most of the questions asked by the audience should be directed to board members who have control over the district’s policies.
“We have been studying schools. We have been looking at the data. There’s truly a disparity in our schools,” Burgess said. “When we look at the Empowering Effective Teachers plan, our students are predominantly African-American; our teachers are predominantly White. Those who write the curriculum are not usually people of color.”
The only board member in attendance was Mark Brentley, district 8, who does not represent the East End schools or the area where the meeting was held. As is customary, Brentley criticized district administrators and other board members for their unequal treatment of African-American students.
“I want to say on behalf of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, I’m sorry. What’s happened over the past seven years to African-American children in this district is criminal,” Brentley said. “When will we ever get someone who will stand loudly and boldly for our African-American students?”
While many of the panelists and others in attendance have held positions in the district in the past, many agreed with Brentley’s assertion that there are inequities between Black and White students as well as predominantly Black and predominantly White schools in the district. Former Westinghouse Principal Heath Bailey, who left the district after what many refer to as the “disaster at Westinghouse,” said it is difficult to change the status quo in the district.
“They moved me to Allderdice and I said I’m going to bring some equity to this school and my mentor told me, ‘if you try to change that big machine in Squirrel Hill, you’re going to be the first thing smoking of there,’” said Bailey of one of his placements prior to Westinghouse. “Well sure enough, approximately six months later, I was smoking out of there.”
This meeting was the first in a series of follow up meetings to address issues and concerns raised at CEA’s October 2011 conference “Mitigating the Impact of Social & Psychological Trauma to the Social Fabric of the African American Community.”