Pittsburgh Public Schools exploring options for different learning models

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With options such as charter, private and parochial schools as well as district-operated magnet schools, only 40 percent of K-12 students in the city are attending the feeder school assigned by where they live.

Pittsburgh Public Schools still manages to keep 70 percent of the students in grades K-12, losing 20 percent to parochial and private schools and 10 percent to charter schools, which are public schools chartered by the district but operated by a separate board.

But numbers for all types of schools point to the wide array of choices families are making for their children's education. The figures are based on the 34,412 students in grades K-12 in 2012-13, including 24,205 in district-operated schools.

Figuring out what is the best mix of schools is one of the challenges of the district's effort called "Envisioning Education Excellence: A Plan for All of Pittsburgh's Children." With grants from the Fund for Excellence and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the district is spending $2.4 million for FSG and Bellwether Education Partners to assist with the effort.

Monday evening at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12, an advisory group -- including representatives of community organizations, philanthropy, government and higher education as well as parents, students, teachers and other staff members -- met to discuss issues around what the district's "portfolio" of schools should look like.

School superintendent Linda Lane said she was struck by how one small discussion group noted that equity is more important than choice.

"That's pretty powerful," she said.

She also saw advocacy for blended schools, which combine Internet and face-to-face learning as well as for concerns for communities that feel disenfranchised because they don't have a school. She said some spoke of a need for stability and consistency, not only in keeping schools open but also in keeping the same principal.

The advisory group was given statistics showing that of the students who chose a district-operated school, 57 percent attend their feeder school, 30 percent go to magnets and 13 percent go to other schools. Magnet schools are district schools. For most magnet schools, acceptance is by lottery.

Figures by race show that 64 percent of white students choose a school other than their feeder school, and 58 percent of black students do so as well.

However, white students are more likely to choose a private or parochial school than are black students, with 52 percent of the white students who are making a choice choosing a private or parochial school while 13 percent of black students making a choice do so.

Black students are more likely to choose a magnet school than white students are, with 46 percent of black students who are making a choice selecting a magnet school compared to 25 percent of whites making a choice.

As for charter schools, 20 percent of black students making a choice choose charters while 15 percent of white students making a choice do so.

The discussion comes as the district wrestles with financial projections that estimate the district will go broke in 2016 unless it changes course.

The presentation noted that the district spends about $6,800 more per student a year than state peers even after unusual spending, such as charter schools, prekindergarten education and debt service, is excluded. With the adjusted figure, the district spends about $18,400 a year per student compared to about $11,600 for peer districts. The peer districts include Allentown, Erie, Hazelton, Lancaster, Reading and Scranton.

The district also is looking at the size of its schools. It lists 12 as operating at less than 50 percent capacity: Pittsburgh Classical 6-8 in the West End, 49 percent; Westwood K-5, 49 percent; Miller PreK-5 in the Hill District, 49 percent; Woolslair K-5 in Lawrenceville, 48 percent; Milliones 6-12 (also known as University Prep) in the Hill District, 46 percent; King PreK-8 on the North Side, 44 percent; Allegheny 6-8 on the North Side, 44 percent; Arsenal PreK-5 in Lawrenceville, 43 percent; Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood, 40 percent; Manchester PreK-8 on the North Side, 39 percent; Weil PreK-5 in the Hill District, 33 percent; and Arsenal 6-8 in Lawrenceville, 33 percent.

The advisory group followed a board discussion last week on the same topic.

The envisioning timeline calls for strategic options to be developed during the summer, followed by implementation.

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955


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