Slipping grades: For Pittsburgh's sake, the schools must do better

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Ask any student. Sometimes a report card is not worth opening.

That's how it was with the latest roundup of key indicators on the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The only thing A+ about it was the name of the education advocacy group, A+ Schools, which monitors the city school system and issues the annual report.

The report released Monday reflected wall-to-wall disappointment. Academic achievement was down, while the racial achievement gap grew. The graduation rate slipped, from 70 percent to 68.5 percent. The portion of seniors with a 2.5 or higher grade point average, needed to qualify for a Pittsburgh Promise scholarship, slid by 1 percentage point to 58 percent of students. For African-American students, the percentage dropped by 4 points to 39 percent.

Among other matters of concern, district enrollment fell by 1,052 students to 24,918, with the biggest losses in the elementary schools. Pittsburgh students also come from poorer households; 71.3 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which is 3 percentage points higher than the previous year.

Schools superintendent Linda Lane said she knew the performance numbers would not be good, and that the district has already been at work trying to find answers and solutions. We can only hope that the city school board and Pittsburgh parents will become partners with teachers and administrators in doing that. The community cannot afford to let students be ill-served by their schools, their families or their own education bad habits. This skid in performance numbers must be stopped in its tracks.

The news comes at a difficult time, as the district's leaders wage an unrelenting battle against higher costs and reduced funding. On Wednesday the system released its proposed $521.8 million budget for 2013, which is 1.5 percent lower than this year's but not enough to head off an operating deficit of $9.86 million. Based on the latest forecasts, the district will have depleted its reserve fund in 2015 and at that point have no way to cover rising deficits -- even after closing more than 30 schools, cutting hundreds of jobs and boosting class sizes.

The district has been a paragon of frugality by not raising taxes for 12 straight years, a record that other districts cannot match and that Pittsburgh residents appreciate. Superintendent Lane rightly observed in her "state of the district" presentation Thursday that the broader school community must tackle the academic and financial problems at the same time.

Although the future of our young people depends on quality schools, effective teaching and education readiness, so too does the future of Pittsburgh as a place to live, work and prosper. Traditionally this city has been the beneficiary of a close-knit community of neighborhoods committed, for the most part, to maintaining a strong urban school district, one that still compares favorably to its peers around the country.

For the sake of Pittsburgh and everyone with a stake in it, let's keep it that way and make sure the next report card shows marked improvement.



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