2020 Vision: The decade for true equity in Pittsburgh Public Schools?

For New Pittsburgh Courier

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”—Frederick Douglass

The struggle for equity and equality within Pittsburgh Public Schools began almost 200 years ago when Pittsburgh Public Schools became an official institution in 1835. African American students were not allowed to attend. Due to community protests, the Pittsburgh School Board finally funded a segregated Black public school in 1838. Again, the community had to protest for a decent building for Black students resulting in the Miller Street School for Black children in 1838 with Jacob B. Taylor as the Black principal. Although the state of Pennsylvania officially abolished racial discrimination in the public school system in 1881, there were NO Black teachers hired between 1881 and 1933. Lawrence Paul Peeler was the first Black full-time teacher hired in 1937. It wasn’t until 1955 that a Black principal, John Brewer was hired.

The struggle against systemic racial inequities continued through the subsequent decades. During the 1980s the late Dr. Barbara Sizemore, Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Black Community, Research and Education at the University of Pittsburgh conducted her own research of the racial disparities within Pittsburgh Public Schools. Her findings were both inspiring and upsetting at the same time. There were highly effective principals at challenging schools serving predominantly African American students with high achievement. There were also glaring and disappointing results at other schools serving predominantly African American students. Due to the glaring racial disparities, Dr. Sizemore initiated action, organizing a broad base of individuals who were concerned about the education of African American students. The Advocates for African American Students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools (Advocates) was born to make a difference on behalf of African American students. For years, the PPS Board ignored the community’s efforts, strategies, and recommendations to remedy the ever-widening academic achievement gap. Consequently, the Advocates became more and more dismayed and fired up regarding the long and inexcusable history of racial disparities facing African American students.

In 1992 The Advocates for African American Students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools filed a discrimination complaint with the Human Relations Commission against the Pittsburgh Board of Education. The complaint alleged the Pittsburgh Board of Education discriminated against African American students by:

1) Hiring as Superintendent a White candidate who was less qualified than the African American candidate,

2) Suspending and disciplining African American students at a higher rate than White students,

3) Distributing class grades disproportionately based on race,

4) Maintaining a large academic achievement gap between African American and white students, and

5) Underrepresentation of African American students in special programs and projects (such as Gifted or Scholars) and overrepresentation of African American students in special education because of their race.

After fourteen (14) years of stalling and six (6) Pittsburgh Board of Education Administrations, a Conciliation Agreement and Consent Order was agreed to in 2006. The Agreement detailed 94 issues of concern to be remedied by the district within five years or by 2012. In this Agreement, the Advocates insisted on the creation of an independent volunteer Equity Advisory Panel to monitor the district’s compliance with the Agreement. During the initial period, “substantial progress” was not achieved; consequently, an extended two-year Memorandum of Understanding continued the Agreement to 2014. After two years, “substantial progress” was not met again; therefore, an additional five-year Memorandum of Understanding extended the Agreement to 2020. The most recent 2018 PSSA/PASA and Keystone Exams reveal significant racial disparities still exist and, in some cases, are increasing. Pittsburgh Board Member, Dr. Regina Holley, as her final official act on the Board, introduced a Resolution in November 2019 to extend the Conciliation Agreement Memorandum of Understanding an additional five years through 2025. The resolution passed unanimously.

The Advocates Complaint and subsequent Conciliation Agreement led to the creation of the seven-member volunteer Equity Advisory Panel in 2006. An additional fourteen years and three Pittsburgh Board of Education Administrations later, the advocacy of the Equity Advisory Panel has produced results in several areas. Notable accomplishments are the “Beyond Diversity Racial Bias Training,” the creation of the PPS Office of Equity, the We Promise and Promise of Sisterhood mentoring initiatives, the creation of the PPS Equity and Excellence in Education Policies, and the PPS On Track to Equity Plan. However, are we really “On Track to Equity?”

After releasing PPS On Track to Equity, PPS initiated Imagine PPS in December 2019. Imagine PPS is a new city-wide initiative composed of community leaders to “…help the District tackle its biggest challenges.” The initiative has 12 focus areas within four categories, none of which includes “Equity;” which is one of the district’s biggest challenges. Are we to Imagine PPS void of equity?

Although the PPS Board has passed a resolution to extend the Conciliation Agreement Memorandum of Understanding, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has consistently failed to respond to the requests from the Advocates and PPS to complete the details of the extending the Agreement. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission must be held responsible and accountable to monitor the Complaint housed under their jurisdiction for the affected students in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The Gender Equity Commission Report titled “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race” confirmed what, generally, Black Pittsburghers already knew. This finding is directly related to the inequalities within Pittsburgh Public Schools. The report found “Pittsburgh’s Black population faces stressful, life-and-death situations far more here than their counterparts across the nation.” How and when will the city’s Office of Equity address these multitude of racial disparities?

As Dr. Barbara A. Sizemore reflects in her book “Walking in Circles – The Struggle for School Reform”:

“Lastly, as my life ends, I must encourage the freedom fighters who follow that any approach which fails to address White supremacy and its counterpart, the imputation of Black inferiority, will force you to walk in circles as I have done. Unless you want to wind up where you came in, seek strong confrontation to White supremacy at every opportunity and keep the glare on it”.

Keeping the glare on it,

The Equity Advisory Panel

Mrs. Wanda Henderson, Chairperson

Ms. Celeta Hickman, Mr. Kirk Holbrook, Ms. Tamanika Howze, Dr. Anthony Mitchell, Mrs. Maria Searcy, Dr. James Stewart

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