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Is Pittsburgh doing enough for families?

Colfax Elementary School in Squirrel Hill

Pittsburgh Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill

Ellen Ayoob thinks Pittsburgh is ideal for families and kids. Having grown up in the city, she sees positive changes. Families like Ayoob’s -- whether natives or transplants -- often cite diversity, walkable neighborhoods, convenience, and proximity to work as factors in their decision to live in the city of Pittsburgh over the suburbs.

But while they agree on what the city has to offer, they aren’t blind to issues that affect families. The public school system is a universal complaint.

Ayoob, a Squirrel Hill resident, goes a step further: “My big beef with Pittsburgh is the inequality and racial divide.”

Public eucation

Improving Pittsburgh’s 54 public schools is a big challenge. A+ Schools -- a community advocate and leader for educational equity and excellence in the Pittsburgh Public Schools -- found in its 2014 Report to the Community that there’s significant inconsistency among its schools.

For instance, graduation rates vary. Pittsburgh Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill had a 90 percent graduation rate last year, with 61 percent going on to college or trade school.

Carrick High School in Carrick is lower, with a 75 percent graduation rate and 38 percent going to college or trade school. There is hope, as the district’s overall four-year graduation rate has improved over the past few years. From 2011 to 2013, the district rate grew from 68.5 percent to 77.4 percent.

The report also shows that state and district scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) declined from 2010-11 to 2013-14 in reading and math.

Pittsburgh Today’s Regional Quality of Life survey found that city residents were more likely to express concerns about education issues and more likely to rate the public schools as somewhat or very unsafe. Pittsburgh Public Schools serves 25,504 students.

Just in time for the start of the school year, Pittsburgh Public Schools and The Pittsburgh Promise are making efforts to address parents' concerns with a back-to-school forum sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda S. Lane and Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, will host the conversation at 7 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 17, at the Jewish Community Center, 5738 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. 

Of the three families cited throughout this article, only one attends public school -- and that’s a recent development. Jamie and David Feldstein’s boys initially attended Community Day School in Squirrel Hill because Jamie worked there and considered it a great education. They had a great support teacher for one of their sons, who has dyslexia.

But last school year, they switched. Jamie -- who lives in Shadyside -- says her younger son only had six boys in his grade. “We thought that the kids needed more diversity,” she says. “Plus, public school is cheaper. However, I would pay anything if it were what my kids needed.”

The boys like their new school; they’re learning and have some wonderful teachers. But the classes are large, Jamie says, with up to 30 kids in each. “I question the switch on a daily basis,” says Jamie. “How do I know I did the right thing? I may never know.”

Robin and Max Hammer’s kids attend private school, because when they first moved to Pittsburgh, they were in the Woodland Hills School District and not a single kid on their street went to Edgewood Primary School in Edgewood, where kids from their neighborhood are sent. When they moved to Squirrel Hill, they were already attached to Community Day School.

Ayoob’s kids attend Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, a Pittsburgh public school for kids K-8. “Jasper was in Colfax [Elementary School in Squirrel Hill] for two years. It was too big, too loud, too worksheet- and test-oriented,” she says. “Also, the funding cuts changed the teacher to student ratios and the class sizes were too big. I wish it had worked for us, because we would walk or bike there, and now we go past it in and out of our neighborhood. We also lost some diversity by switching schools.”

Ayoob calls ECS a great school in a newly renovated building, where kids are being taught to be system thinkers with an environmental slant. Yet, “less than three miles away is a school with bars on the windows and 90 percent reduced or free lunch,” she says.

Income inequality

Income inequality exists across the board. Three years ago, a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute -- a national nonprofit organization that works on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low and moderate-income families and individuals -- found that income gaps widened in Pennsylvania between the late 1990s and mid-2000s. Earnings for low-income families dropped. The fact sheet cites: “the richest 5 percent of households have average incomes 11.7 times as large as the bottom 20 percent of households and 4.3 times as large as the middle 20 percent of households.” That corresponds to $23,000 for the poorest compared to $269,400 for the richest.

Yinzercation, a Southwest Pennsylvania grassroots education justice movement made up of parents, students, and teachers, says that Pittsburgh has “long had unacceptably large achievement gaps, along the lines of both race and socioeconomic status.” Gaps exist because some of the most important factors affecting student outcomes haven’t been addressed, such as early childhood learning and child poverty.

UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre -- the main research arm of the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF -- found that the United States has the second highest child poverty rate of any industrialized country in the world, second only to Romania.

“As terrible as that number is,” a Yinzercation article reads, “it is even worse in Pittsburgh, especially for people of color. Of the top 40 major metropolitan areas in the U.S., Pittsburgh has the third-highest poverty rate for working-age African Americans (ages 18-64). Almost half (45 percent) of all African-American children under the age of 18 live in households below the poverty line. A whopping 53 percent of black children from birth to age 5 live in poverty.”

These are the children, of course, who typically attend the schools in need of the most help. “We ought to be focusing on the equality gap -- equality of opportunity and income,” the article says.

Ayoob agrees. “I wish there was more equality in the funding for public schools, in the investment in infrastructure in poorer neighborhoods, and in jobs creation,” she says.

Racial disparity

The Hammers’ desire to avoid public school in the Woodland Hills School District is not surprising. It was recently ranked in the top 10 nationwide for having the highest percentage of out-of-school suspensions of elementary students, according to the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.

It doesn’t help that suspension rates have been called “extraordinarily high” by researchers who issued a district profile. Last year, the number of suspensions dropped 15 percent compared to the previous year, but more than 9,900 suspensions were issued, with nearly three-fourths of them to black students.

Making matters worse, the Pittsburgh Promise -- a nonprofit scholarship program that invests in eligible urban youth to improve their education -- may be failing to help African-American students. Pittsburgh Promise awards scholarships of up to $30,000 per student and has helped fund post-secondary education and training for more than 5,600 graduates since 2012. 

The A+ Schools report found that the number of students eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program declined and the “disparity between the percentages of qualifying white and black students grew,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

But there’s a Pittsburgh Public Schools committee that’s working on strengthening fathers’ involvement. PPS also accepted a $785,000 grant from the Wallace Foundation for the 2015 Summer Dreamers Academy, a summer program aimed mostly at children who are academically below grade level and from low-income families. And a $3 million federal grant will help PPS bring and research “restorative practices in the schools.”

Family-friendly legislation

In some areas, Pittsburgh is making an effort when it comes to families. For example, City Council passed legislation introduced by Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak that grants at least six weeks of full paid family leave to City of Pittsburgh employees.

Last year, Rudiak collaborated with the women of Council to pass three pieces of legislation to make Pittsburgh more family friendly: Founding a subcommittee to discuss child care, funding a child care needs assessment, and starting the Council Communities Facilities Fund, which creates a fund to improve child care facilities.

National initiatives

The city is also using national resources to spur improvements. Pittsburgh has been picked as one of six pilot cities for the U.S. Justice Department’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. As Attorney General Eric Holder said in his speech, “By helping to develop programs that serve their own diverse experiences, these cities will stand on the leading edge of our effort to confront pressing issues in communities across the country.”

Mayor Bill Peduto was also selected to serve on a task force charged with raising the visibility of issues facing cities during the 2016 presidential election. He’ll be one of 17 municipal officials serving on the bipartisan National League of Cities Presidential Election Task Force. This goes hand in hand with Peduto co-chairing the league’s Council on Youth, Education and Families. Unlike other NLC committees or councils, youth and representatives from major organizations will join elected officials in improving life for children and families.

At least residents seem to be largely satisfied with the quality of lives they’re leading, according to the Regional Quality of Life survey mentioned earlier. But we can do better. The conclusion of the report reads, “Few demographic differences were seen on how residents viewed their satisfaction with their lives and their happiness across the region. One exception, however, was socioeconomic status as measured by income and education. Residents with higher incomes and a higher level of education tended [to] report both greater satisfaction with their lives and higher levels of happiness than those with lower incomes and less education.”
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