Complaint made 20 years ago, little progress made
At the Sept. 26 legislative meeting of the Pittsburgh Public School District, the Board of Directors voted to extend a memorandum of understanding with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission for the continued monitoring of the District’s effort to improve achievement for African-American students and to reduce racial disparities.
“As long as we’re headed in the right direction with trying to help kids, trying to provide the best education product we can, these issues shouldn’t come up.” said District 3 Rep. Thomas Sumpter at the meeting. “The one question I was going to ask is what specifically is going to be done now that hasn’t been done in the past that’s going to raise achievement in the district. What specifically is going to be done?”
The board’s action is the result of 1992 complaint filed by the Advocates for African-American Students alleging racial discrimination in the District. In 2006, a conciliation agreement was reached with PHRC to address how the District could reduce racial disparities, provide instructional support, and create an environment of equity for its African-American students.
“In essence, the first three years were unproductive. Within the last year the process has started to improve and there is more of a spirit of partnership to realistically look at the progress or lack of progress that has been made during this agreement,” said Wanda Henderson, one of the original complainants. “Of course, there is genuine concern that if the PPS could not achieve substantial progress within five years, will another two years make a difference?”
The agreement included the formation of an Equity Advisory Panel to monitor the District's system-wide compliance, and to recommend research-based strategies, methods, and programs to address the disparities. However, five years later, members of EAP say progress has been much slower than they had hoped.
According to results from 2011 PPS test scores the racial achievement gap between Black and White students is 27.7 percentage points in reading and 25.9 percentage points in math.
“We know people are working hard, but something is not right. Institutionalized racism is alive and well and until we address this, the gap is going to continue,” said Henderson, a member of the EAP. “The district is always reorganizing and redistricting and it seems like the same students are always being affected. It’s not equitable to keep moving the same kids and the same populations.”
In August 2007 the EAP had their first official meeting and in March 2008 they presented a report of concerns and recommendations to the District. However, Henderson said the District never implemented the recommendations or agreed to a system of metrics for monitoring progress in resolving the racial disparities.
“We’ll continue trying to resolve the blatant disparities. During the five years the district was supposed to make substantial progress, which they did not do. We’d like to see some results,” Henderson said.
The conciliation agreement outlined 94 action steps, of which the District says 80 were included in the “Excellence for All” reform agenda. They are currently working on a new plan, “Equity: Getting to All,” which sets specific target goals for African-American students regarding test scores and graduation rates.
“We believe that the district has made some changes but we’re not there yet. We certainly haven’t eliminated all of the inequities that were brought to our attention,” said Shannon Powers, spokeswomen for PHRC. “There are a number of proactive measures and steps they can take in order to ensure, for example, the inequities in discipline are eliminated. We outlined the strategies that were effective and would continue to produce positive results.”
The Courier made repeated requests for comment to the Pittsburgh District, but did not receive a response.