The power of knowledge: Carey Harris of A+ Schools
“From the White House to the classroom, decisions about educations are increasingly being made using data,” says Carey Harris, executive director of the nonprofit A+ Schools
, sitting in her unpretentious office in the Hill District. “When you look at standardized testing, attendance [and] teaching and principal turnover, you can get an idea of how well schools are doing.”
The whole idea behind education is that knowledge is power, of course. So the power to improve a faltering school system should lie in knowing more about it. To that end, Harris has been tirelessly gathering information about Pittsburgh Public Schools and presenting it to parents and anyone else concerned about a district where about half of all African-American male students still drop out before graduation.
Add in community involvement and school-board accountability and you have a good shot at chipping away at the ills that have befallen urban schools, says Harris. She has very real skin in this particular game. Her kids are in kindergarten, second and fourth grade, respectively, at Pittsburgh Phillips K-5 school in the South Side.
“In a way, having three young kids would be a reason not to have a job like this,” she says of the long hours and heavy responsibility that come with the executive director‘s chair. “In another way, having three young kids is a reason to
have a job like this. I want schools to be good for them and for everyone else.”
A+ traces its origins back to one of the district’s darkest houses, when three philanthropic organizations that had been major donors effectively went on strike. They jointly withheld funds until the district developed a new plan for improving the quality of its education and the behavior of its board. In response, then-mayor Tom Murphy convened a commission and appointed Harris, who was heading up the South Side Local Development Company, as a commissioner.
One of this group’s central recommendations was an independent organization to monitor the city’s schools. Funded by private sources, A+ Schools was formed in 2004 to fill that role. Eloise Hirsh, Murphy’s director of city planning, tagged Harris (who has master’s degrees in social work and public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh) to become one of its first co-directors before easing into the executive director role.
“When I was with the [SSLDC], we didn’t encouraging the building of houses big enough for kids,” she says. “The schools were a big reason people were leaving the city. I enjoy being part of an organization that rights that.”
She says life on the South Side has been nothing but a benefit to her family. At Phillips, “my kids meet people of different backgrounds and I think that’s a valuable part of an education.”
Harris says she knew firsthand how difficult it could be to keep up with a school on a working parent’s schedule. Hence, the flagship project of A+ is an annual “Report to the Community,” mailed to every parent with school-age children in the city. It includes a profile for each of the district’s schools, which includes the principal turnover rate, attendance rates of students, percent of pupils meeting at least “proficient” scores on state standardized tests and the number of disciplinary actions per 100 students. Of course, all the data is put together to chart the overall progress of Pittsburgh Public Schools – progress that “is being made, though way too slowly,” says Harris.
One critical dilemma is the achievement gap, measured in standardized test scores, between African-American students in PPS (who make up about 58 percent of the district) and Caucasian students statewide. In 2007, 38 percent of African-American students were reading at grade level and 42.5 percent were testing at grade level in math, compared to 75 percent proficiency in reading and 76 percent in math for white students across the state. The test scores of PPS’s black students have improved, as of 2010, to close both gaps by about 3 percentage points, so progress is being made, even if it is at a maddeningly sluggish pace.
“Pittsburgh mirrors other schools in the country, where children of color are going to poorer schools and have teachers that are more transient,” says Tracey Reed Armant, a volunteer on the A+ Board of Directors. “I think by identifying and being aware of that problem, you start to unravel it.”
In addition to A+ Schools’ research arm (which is overseen by a postdoctoral fellow in Carnegie Mellon University’s statistics department), the group has an army of volunteers who get softer data by interviewing teachers and administrators about their experiences and attending school-board meetings. The group, which also sends out mailers to increase voter turnout in local elections, gives each board, appropriately enough, a report card measuring such things as transparency and good conduct.
“I am always amazed by the number of people who turn out to board meetings, and they come from a variety of age ranges,” says Bill Isler, a 12-year Pittsburgh Public Schools board member. “That was entirely Carey’s initiative. … I think the board’s relationship to the community has grown and it’s due to Carey’s leadership.”
The overarching goal of A+ Schools is to see that every young adult graduating from the city public-school system is prepared for a career or advanced education. To achieve this aim, Pittsburgh has a lot of factors working it its favor, Harris says. The city still has a relatively strong middle class to provide a tax base and the student population of about 25,000 is a manageable size, though there is a flip side to that second factor: the small student population is due to the fact only 15 percent of city households have at least one school-age child. That means there is less public interest in the school district.
Harris says every Pittsburgher should understand that he or she has a vested interest in city schools. “Half of our real estate taxes and a third of our wage taxes go to the school district,” she notes. “Good schools are essential to our vitality. They are essential to successive generations. We can’t write off 25,000 kids. It’s a death sentence to the city.”
This story first appeared in the Kidsburgh
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Main image: Carey Harris. Group picture (l to r): Rebekah Jenkins, Mayada Mansour, Amy Scott (front middle), Carey Harris.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen