According to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan teachers are the greatest in-school factor that impacts student achievement. For this reason the Pittsburgh Public School District’s teachers must adapt to meet the needs of the district’s African-American students who make up nearly 60 percent of the student population, but trail in achievement.

“Our district and our teachers, more than anywhere else around, have been involved in innovation. Our teachers have been involved in education reform modeling. I’m so proud of what we do and I’m not sure people realize it,” said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. “When you get teachers involved, it’s a beautiful thing to watch. Some of my proudest moments have been watching teachers in the classroom.”

Esposito-Visgitis said the district’s administrators and teachers are committed to reducing the achievement gap between Black and White students. She touted the district’s equity plan and ongoing professional development diversity training as examples.

“I like the fact that people are talking about (the achievement gap) and working on it honestly together. It’s not a secret anymore,” she said. “People of the district are dedicated to that work. The district is also really focusing on schools where there isn’t an achievement gap and what are they doing.”

Despite this work, Esposito-Visgitis said out of school factors contribute greatly to achievement disparities in PPS. She cited poverty and violence as the two greatest factors impacting African-Americans and said she would like to see more initiatives to address them.

“So much of what happens in our schools comes from what happens out of school. I know we have great bullying programs in school, but we need to have wraparound services that target to and from school. Many of the times fights in school come from outside the school,” she said. “Poverty is the main problem in our school system. I would match our programs with any school district around here. Our teachers are great, but poverty and what kids bring with them are the issues.”

While the district is focused on helping African-American students and embracing diversity, PPS is still lacking in diverse teachers. In 2010, only 15 percent of the district’s teachers were Black.
“I worry about that. I’ve had numerous conversations about how do we retain bright African-American teachers that are coming into the district; we really need to get them to come here,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “Our students need all kinds of role models.”

As the number of charter schools in the Pittsburgh area grows, PPS teachers must compete to attract students to the district. While some charter schools claim success in eliminating the achievement gap, she said attraction to charter schools is misguided.

“According to the data, 15 percent of schools do better than we do, but they’re held to different standards than we are,” she said. “So parents see that and think I want to send my kids there, but the bar is set lower.”

Instead of worrying about competition from charter schools, she said her teachers are attracting students to the district by playing a key role in developing innovative reform initatives.

“I celebrate innovative projects in PPS,” she said. “I like that we’re looking ahead and planning that we are going to be here long term.”

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