“Now is the time for our School community to wrestle with the history of Black pain and trauma, to determine how we have been complicit in that pain and trauma, and to learn with and from Black people as we seek to ‘innovate and agitate.'”

~ Dean Valerie Kinloch, University of Pittsburgh School of Education, A+ Schools Board Member

Over the course of these last few months, I have struggled deeply with how our organization can address the inequities that we see in our educational system… a system that A+ Schools’ mission is to transform so that it equitably provides opportunities, supports, teachers, and leaders, and resources to those who need them most. Dean Kinloch’s words resonate with me as we look at where we have and have not wrestled with our history, and what we have done to be, as she says, complicit in the pain and trauma of Black and Brown Pittsburghers.

Our response in the short term has been to work collectively with partners to address the current moment in what we’re calling the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative. Our hope is to help provide another pathway for supporting children and families to add to the many other efforts occurring all over our region. In the coming months, we hope that the work of the many partners creates a significant positive impact for our children.

But the longer-term change of systems requires both reflective works as individuals and transformative work as a collective. Listening to and acknowledging the pain and grief of our Black and Brown neighbors is necessary, but insufficient, to achieving justice. Justice requires action.

Dr. Zaretta Hammond, in a recent interview, hit the nail on the head in discussing equity. She said, “People talk about equity as if it had just one dimension, in an either-or way: it’s this, or it’s that. In reality, equity is a multifaceted and complex issue. I like the National Equity Project’s definition of educational, or instructional, equity: reducing the predictability of who succeeds and who fails, interrupting reproductive practices that negatively impact students, and cultivating the gifts and talents of every student.”

Let me offer, as a starting point for discussion, some thoughts on specific changes that we could make in our educational system that could lead to greater equity. I will also note that I believe that the systems we have are designed to get the outcomes we currently see. We may lament the outcomes or believe that something else is to blame, but as Dr. Hammond more eloquently noted in the same interview, “The reality: These systems are doing exactly what they were designed to do from the beginning, which is to churn out inequitable outcomes that create racial stratification in terms of who is college- and career-ready. This is a hard truth that many people don’t want to acknowledge when we start having the ‘equity conversation.'”

So what can we change that would 1. reduce the predictability of who succeeds and who fails, 2. interrupt practices that negatively impact students, and 3. cultivate the gifts and talents of every student?

1. Focus on building strong family-school partnerships. If we want to best serve children, especially Black and Brown children, we need to listen to those who care and love them. We see that schools with higher achievement, lower chronic absence, and reduced suspensions honor families by working at building authentic relationships with parents and caregivers.

At its most basic level, it means that teachers and administrators from these schools make an effort to reach every parent to understand their dreams and hopes for their children. These schools create events that build a community where teachers and families can get to know each other in a more relaxed setting. It is in a relationship that we can break down latent assumptions based on race and class that predominate our culture.

2. Reform the de facto student tracking system known as gifted education. PPS has been working to reform this system by opening up more rigorous AP courses to all students (regardless of gifted identification) and doing a pilot around new ways to identify “gifted students.” But in a system with 70% Children of Color, it makes no sense that 66% of the students that attend the gifted center are White. This would require a change to state law as many of the barriers to change exist as a result of state mandates. The benefits of that identification in terms of opportunities and additional supports create a greater separation between Black and White students in the District.

3. Change how the least experienced teachers are assigned to school buildings. We know that buildings with high numbers of Black and Economically Disadvantaged students have a higher proportion of teachers who are new to the field. These schools also experience higher than normal churn at the principal’s position. We need a new staffing model for schools that prioritizes additional supports in schools where students have historically been marginalized and underserved.

4. Review instructional practices at predominantly Black schools. Dr. Sonja Santelises is undertaking exactly this kind of review in Baltimore to address what she calls “educational redlining.” Dr. Hammond speaks of this as the “over scaffolding” of instruction: where students aren’t ever given the cognitive tools to work deeply and independently. This is hard work that requires one on one coaching, deep dives into instructional practices school by school, and trust between educators and administrators to work to better for all children. One benefit of this work though is that it need not cost any additional money. Reorienting principals to support (not judge, shame, or blame) improvement in practice need only be prioritized and trained.

5. Selective magnets and charters should have limitations on their ability to push students out. Currently, a student that is not meeting academic or behavioral expectations at selective magnet schools like CAPA, Sci-Tech, or Obama can be pushed out to their neighborhood school. This typically creates trauma for the pushed out child that makes integration into their newly assigned school much more difficult. Once a student is accepted at one of these magnet schools, it should be that school’s responsibility to work with the student and their family to help get the child back on track. We should also be looking to resourcing our neighborhood schools with the staff, programming, and supports that would help them succeed with all students.

6. Focus on evidence-based practices in early grades to get all children reading proficiently. Again, Dr. Hammond’s interview points the way for what we should be doing: “This is the vital equity work: students must comprehend what they’re reading, possess advanced decoding skills, have word wealth, and be able to command all of these literacy skills. Our social justice frame should prompt us to ask these questions: How are students code breakers, how are they text users, how are they text critics, and how are they meaning-makers? Our culturally responsive pedagogies arm us to build these dispositions and skills in our most vulnerable kids.” Our educators need high-quality curricula and training in the science of reading. We know what to do, we have the resources we need, we just need to have the will to create the trust and support for parents, educators, and students to help them all become strong, competent readers and writers.

What else would you recommend?

I continue to believe that we have everything we need to create greater justice for Black families in Pittsburgh. We must listen. We must acknowledge our complicity. But we must also act for justice. This does not come about with good intentions, but with the clear, measurable change that creates a greater positive impact.

Please be safe out there. Take care of yourselves and your families. And let us know how we can best support you in your fight for justice.

By James Fogarty
Executive Director, A+ Schools