Report calls on Pittsburgh schools to focus on resources

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For Great Public Schools-Pittsburgh, the question of how to solve the district's academic and financial problems shouldn't be couched as how to trim the budget.

"Instead we must ask, 'How can we fund the schools our students deserve?' We must expand our way of thinking, reframe the problem and come at public education as a community committed to finding the resources our students need to succeed in school and in life," the coalition stated in a report released Friday.

The report is titled "Great Public Schools for All Pittsburgh Children" and calls for making schools "community schools" that provide education and other services and serve as community centers.

"This is really a new way of thinking about public schools and really connecting schools to communities," said Jessie Ramey, a Point Breeze parent whose children attend Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill and author of the Yinzercation blog.

Yinzercation is one of the founding members of Great Public Schools-Pittsburgh, along with Action United, One Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and SEIU Healthcare PA.

Ms. Ramey said a task force with Mayor Bill Peduto is in the works. Sonya Toler, spokeswoman for the mayor, said "preliminary discussions" have been held.

The report calls for full art, music, science, history and world language programs as well as a fulltime librarian in every school, a full athletic program and fewer high-stakes tests.

It seeks smaller class sizes, tutoring programs, provisions for special education students and differentiated learning, and a "high-quality, well-supported teacher in every classroom."

It also calls for expanded early childhood education.

To improve school climate, it recommends daily recess, a nurse in every school every day, "authentic parent engagement," bullying prevention and "fair and nondiscriminatory disciplinary policies."

Throughout the district, class sizes have been growing as the district battles its budget deficit. All schools have art, music and a librarian, but many have only one day a week for each.

The report comes on the heels of the district's "Whole Child, Whole Community" report, which was released in December and came out of a $2.4 million envisioning process.

The "Whole Child" report is intended to address both financial and academic challenges. The district expects to run out of money in 2016 unless it changes course.

The idea of community schools came up in the envisioning process but was not named in the "Whole Child" report.

School district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh noted the "Whole Child" report calls for community input. The district is set to begin a round of community conversations this week, the first at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the Blakey Program Center in the Hill District.

"The district acknowledges we can't do this alone and that the community will play an important role if we're going to reach our goals for all of our students," she said.

Ms. Ramey also said there are some similarities in the reports, including the desire to address equity.

A big question is how to pay for it. Pittsburgh has a higher per-pupil cost than the majority of school districts across the state.

"We spend more than our peer districts, and we must control our spending," Ms. Pugh said. "All our problems are not going to be fixed by Harrisburg."

Ms. Ramey said, "When people say we're spending too much, I find that a little hard to swallow when we have kids who don't have [adequate] art, music, library, nurses and tutoring programs."

The report suggests increasing state money for education by closing tax loopholes, imposing a severance tax on Marcellus Shale, getting rid of a bonus depreciation rule, eliminating sales tax exemptions, reducing high-stakes testing and other measures.

The "Great Public Schools for All Pittsburgh Children" report can be viewed at the coalition website, www.gpspgh.com. The "Whole Child, Whole Community" report can be viewed at www.pps.k12.pa.us.


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

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