For some Black families in Pittsburgh, finding the right school means choosing between diversity and academic rigor

Doris Harvin-Taylor, left, speaks about the choices they’ve made for their children’s education, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, at their home in Morningside, beside her husband Kwame Taylor. The couple was part of a study by the Pittsburgh College Access Alliance and the University of Pittsburgh which interviewed Black families about their educational experiences to come up with paths forward. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Financial barriers, lack of diversity in staffing and stereotypes are some of the common challenges faced by Black families.

by Lajja Mistry and Emma Folts, PublicSource

For Doris Harvin-Taylor, navigating the options for schools in Pittsburgh is “exhausting.”

Her 12-year-old son Joshua attends The Neighborhood Academy, a private college preparatory school. She and her husband, Kwame Taylor, like the student diversity and values of the school, and it’s where they would like to send their 10-year-old daughter, Abigail next fall.

Abigail currently attends Dilworth PreK-5, a magnet school in Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS]. They’ve had a great experience there, but Harvin-Taylor is concerned about the social and learning environment at some of the district’s middle schools. “Your surroundings sometimes are everything,” she said.

Choosing K-12 schools can present a dilemma to Black families in the Pittsburgh region, according to new research from local nonprofits and the University of Pittsburgh funded by The Heinz Endowments*. Though parents’ concerns are not monolithic, some noted that public schools can offer greater student diversity but can lack resources due to systemic inequities. Private schools, on the other hand, can provide more resources at a greater price, but the predominantly white spaces can be socially isolating. 

For some families, neither system offers a clear path to college or success. In both, families may face racial and economic barriers to opportunities.

Doris Harvin-Taylor looks over the homework of her 12-year-old son, Joshua, as he works on math at their home on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Morningside. Harvin-Taylor and her husband are hoping that The Neighborhood Academy, the private college-preparatory school that Joshua attends, will hire more Black teachers in the years to come. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)For years, several nonprofits have provided enrichment opportunities and financial support to reduce these barriers and prepare students for college. Collectively known as the Pittsburgh College Access Alliance [PCAA], the organizations partnered with Pitt in 2018 to interview Black families about their educational experiences and come up with paths forward. The group, which spoke with about 50 people, says that improving teacher diversity, equitably funding schools and investing in diversity, equity and inclusion training are among the efforts needed to address disparities. Leaders of the nonprofits believe that now is the time for school districts, government leaders and community members to act, especially given the additional disruption of many students’ educations during the pandemic. They’re sharing the report with more than 100 local leaders and organizations in hopes that they’ll help to build on its findings.

“I think that the Pittsburgh region needs to almost draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is not good enough. We are not doing right by our children. We are not doing right by our families of color in the city,’” said Esther Mellinger Stief, executive director of the Crossroads Foundation, a PCAA member organization.

There’s a lot of ground to cover: In Pittsburgh, about 21% of Black residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 53% of white residents do, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey.

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