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JAMES COOPER has led the effort at Pittsburgh Perry in drastically decreasing student suspensions at the school. (Photo courtesy PPS)

Pittsburgh Public Schools, according to a report released by A+ Schools, is “still a work in progress.”

A+ Schools, Pittsburgh’s community alliance for public education, publicly released their 2017 Report to the Community on Public School Progress, Nov. 13. And among the extensive data, charts, and explanations, the organization made it clear their stance on the status of the district’s schools.


“We try not to give grades (to the district) because we want people to dive into the data themselves,” James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools, told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview. “There are marks where we would say the district is excelling and starting to see improvement.  But overall if you look at the gaps, gaps in opportunity, gaps in overall achievement, there is still miles and miles to go. So, ‘needs improvement’ would be the way I would think of it,” Fogarty said.

During its Nov. 13 news conference at the Hill House Association, A+ Schools touted data-backed positives, such as the district’s graduation rate increasing by 10 percent from 2015-16 to 2016-17, third grade reading scores increasing by 8 points overall (12 points for African American students), and 66 percent of the district’s seniors earning grade point averages that qualified them for the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship (2.5 GPA or higher).

A+ Schools also highlighted “challenges” that remain, according to the organization; Enrollment continuing to decline, White students accounting for two-thirds of those enrolled in the district’s gifted program (Black students only account for 18.5 percent), and Black students still accounting for the vast majority of suspensions (77 percent), five times as many as White students.

Fogarty told the Courier exclusively that the alarming suspension rate could be attributed to “implicit bias, and how we criminalize Black student behavior,” he said. “We know from the data that…African American boys are looked at as older at younger ages, they’re treated more harshly for similar behaviors as their White counterparts, as are the girls. This is a function of having a school system that has 86 percent White teachers, and so we know the work that has to be done to improve and change that suspension rate is about the adults in the room and not so much about the children.”

Fogarty said oftentimes, Pittsburgh students might be “coming from worlds where they might be experiencing trauma, (and) handling trauma requires a different set of expectations, and maybe a different set of interactions than someone who is not experiencing crisis.”

Some teachers, Fogarty said, may not have the adequate training needed to assist kids who come to school with a certain level of trauma, thus some teachers adhere to certain protocols that could lead to higher suspensions.

Pittsburgh Perry Traditional Academy, however, is bucking the trend. Fogarty told media members the school’s suspension rate reduced 32 percent last year. “I think it’s the educators there, I think it’s the attention to the data, I think the leadership in the building made it a cause and they worked together on it,” Fogarty said in his praise for Perry. “I think we should be talking to the leadership in that building to find out what they did specifically to lower it.”

James Cooper is the current principal at Perry, a position he’s held since Oct. 17, 2016.

Fogarty likened the situation at Perry to an overall goal, which is to have “a school that’s safe, a school where kids are learning, a school that’s engaging, but also a school where kids are not excluded for being kids for making the mistakes that kids make, and that’s what we do too often.”

Other positive highlights in the advocacy group’s 2017 report were: 68 percent of district schools met or exceeded state growth standards in English Language Arts, and 46 percent of district schools met or exceeded state growth standards in Math.

However, Michelle Massie, A+ Schools director of research and communications, told the New Pittsburgh Courier exclusively that “overall achievement on Math PSSA scores for Pittsburgh Public Schools demands urgent attention. Sixty-eight percent of students in grades 3 through 5, and 77 percent of students in grades 6 through 8 are not proficient in math. Pittsburgh is redefining itself as a center of high technology and innovation, but our students are not prepared for employment in these STEM industries. If you look across grade spans, both White and Black children aren’t doing well in math. If you want to be ready for the careers that are available today—let alone in the future—students have to know math. These data have to be a wakeup call to our entire city to get our children excited and engaged with math and numeracy.”

“I’ve said it from the beginning, the district alone is not going to do this by themselves,” Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said in remarks following Fogarty’s presentation. “That’s why I embrace everybody in this room, as we go out and make sure that we work together…We have a plethora of community supports. We have advocacy supports, PFT (Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers), we have all these entities that really need to come together and really look at how we can change the narrative of our children in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Some of our children are doing well, and some of our children are not, but understanding that the achievement does not start at Pre-K, it starts at birth. So, what are we doing as a city as a community to really stop the achievement gap at birth,” Hamlet said.

The entire A+ Schools 2017 report can be found at http://www.aplusschools.org.


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