Pittsburgh's public school students find widely varying opportunities

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The more than 24,000 students who attend Pittsburgh Public Schools are all in the same system -- but they find different opportunities.

Italian is offered at Pittsburgh Brashear High School in Beechview but not at any other district secondary school.

A librarian works three days of a six-day rotation at Dilworth K-5 in East Liberty, unlike the one-day-a-week librarian at most elementary schools.

There are six paraprofessionals at Pittsburgh Morrow K-8 in Brighton Heights to help out in regular classrooms while many buildings have none for regular students.

Despite more standardization of curriculum in city schools, how money is spent still varies from school to school, based on district allocations, grants and principals' decisions in their school-based budgets.

The result is variations in whether principals budget money for field trips, books, library materials, world languages, science specialists, extracurricular activities, student snacks, paraprofessionals, student service assistants, office personnel and other expenses.

(Site-based budgets for each of the district's 50 brick-and-mortar schools can be found with the online version of this article at post-gazette.com. The district also plans to add a comparison tool to its website, www.pps.k12.pa.us.)

To be sure, much of the educational program is standard.

For K-8 students, for example, schools must spend set amounts of time on English language arts, math, social studies and science, leaving just one period a day open for any other subjects.

PG graphic: School based budgets
(Click image for larger version)

Over a six-day rotation with one open period a day, the district has mandated uses -- art, music and physical education -- for four of the six periods that remain after the core classes. A librarian -- required at least one day a week -- also may teach one period in the rotation or provide help during other classes.

Before the curriculum was standardized, the number of periods that principals scheduled for core subjects varied from school to school.

"The academics were definitely an equity issue around quality," said Jerri Lynn Lippert, chief academic officer.

Now, Ms. Lippert said, "I would say there is less variation in the academic program in terms of what students are supposed to be able to know and do and the time."

Foreign languages widely vary

High school students have to meet graduation requirements, but there still are differences in course offerings.

Across schools, one of the biggest differences is world language offerings.

With schedules so tight, most K-8 schools as well as 6-8 schools do not offer a world language. Among K-5 schools, only four -- all magnet schools -- have a world language.

In recent years, 17 schools -- K-5, K-8 and 6-8 -- have eliminated world languages, a casualty of limited schedules, tight budgets and supply of teachers to fill part-time positions.

Among them is South Hills 6-8 in Beechview. It doesn't offer its own world language courses, but about 30 of its students arrive about an hour early to take French, Italian or Spanish at adjacent Brashear High School.

In addition to the 17, Sterrett 6-8 in Point Breeze, doesn't offer a world language this term after two German teachers -- one after the other -- resigned. But a language may be restored there in the fall.

Marsha Plotkin, curriculum supervisor for world languages, said principals "have had to make some hard choices" between world languages and "let's say, an extra math teacher to make class sizes smaller in [state] tested areas."

Even so, she said about a third of the district's students take a world language class at least on a limited basis.

At CAPA 6-12, Downtown, principal Melissa Pearlman's budget for the coming year eliminates the only world language -- Spanish -- offered in grades 6-8 to provide more periods for math. She said the district curriculum is written for 10 math periods a week in those grades, but CAPA has been providing eight.

"We had to make a very difficult decision to follow 10 periods," she said.

Districtwide, students in grades 9-12 have access to world languages at all schools although the choices vary.

Of the district's four high schools serving grades 9-12, students at Allderdice in Squirrel Hill have the most world language choices: five languages -- Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese and German. It plans to eliminate German in the fall because of low demand.

Carrick offers French, German and Spanish; and Perry on the North Side offers Spanish and Japanese, and Brashear in Beechview has Spanish, French and Italian and plans to add Russian in the fall.

Allderdice principal Melissa Friez said, "We focus a lot on academic electives. We find students opt to take more academic electives than they do sometimes in other areas."

If schools offer one class, they may not have resources for another. Allderdice has more world language teachers than Brashear, but Brashear has more arts teachers.

Principals also vary widely in amounts they budget for textbooks. The district provides one student edition for each student when the books are first adopted, but the schools are to pay for replacement books.

Some principals don't budget any money specifically for replacement books.

Perry drew attention this school year when complaints arose that students didn't have textbooks to take home.

"At Perry, for whatever reason, they decided they did not want to give students textbooks," said Ms. Lippert. "The books we sent them were in the book room."

If books in a classroom set were damaged, the books in the book room would replace them.

Ms. Lippert said that violated the district policy, and the high school and district this school year split the cost of making sure each student had textbooks to take home.

The district also is working to correct book issues at other schools, including Carrick and Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood, she said.

Complicated process

Budgeting in Pittsburgh Public Schools is a complicated process.

Each principal submits a site-based budget. The district allocates a certain number of teachers and other staff members based on the number of periods and projected enrollment, taking a close look at each grade level.

The principal has some latitude in how to allot those teachers -- such as smaller first grades and larger fifth grades -- as well as discretionary money that can be used to pay for additional staff, services, equipment or materials.

Principals used to be able to choose whether to offer art, music or a librarian, but the district in 2012-13 set minimum standards so all students would have at least some access. The minimum can be as little as one period every six days.

For some schools, that meant more. For others, it meant less. Principals now have to use discretionary funds for extra or else make do with the minimum.

Like a few other principals, Monica Lamar, principal of Dilworth K-5, a magnet school which offers an arts and humanities program, put some of the school's discretionary money into extra time for a librarian. Dilworth's librarian is helping infuse technology into the arts program.

Even though the number of schools with librarians expanded, the number of librarians in the district has dropped by more than half in recent years, from 35 in 2011-12 to 20 in 2013-14.

The number of music teachers has fallen as well, from 68 in 2011-12 to 53 in 2013-14.

There are 66.5 certified visual art teachers. Previous numbers were not available.

The site-based budgets do not count certain operating costs, such as custodians, heat and light.

They also don't count certain educational costs, such as special education, gifted education and English as a second language, which are contained in other budgets. Their numbers may be reflected in the total teacher staffing for each building but not in the monetary total.

The site-based budgets also do not include nurses, transportation, various grants and federal Title 1 money, which is allocated to schools based on their numbers of low-income children.

Principals also help to determine how the federal Title 1 money is spent, using federal rules. For example, Ms. Friez combined district discretionary money and Title 1 money to get a fourth counselor at Allderdice.

Some schools also have grant money, including federal School Improvement Grants or other outside grants.

In addition to allocated staff, the site-based budget includes a discretionary amount for principals to spend on what they see as the school's needs, including field trips, books and extra teachers.

Discretionary money falls between 3 and 9 percent of a school's total site-based budget.

The amount of discretionary money each school receives depends not only on how many students the school has but also how needy they are.

In 2013-14, schools could get at least $250 per student in discretionary money and more if there's a high number of students qualifying for the federal lunch program or the school is considered "high impact."

In addition, some principals received more discretionary money because they didn't use their full staff allocations.

Principals are required to allot at least $100 per student of discretionary money for non-staff costs.

The discretionary amount can be small -- such as $43,160 for Woolslair, the smallest school with 110 students on the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville border -- and not enough to cover even an additional teacher or even a paraprofessional.

The largest school, Brashear High at 1,416 students, has the largest amount of discretionary money, $405,390.

According to its budget, Brashear used much of its discretionary money to pay for more staff.

In addition to the regular site-based allocation, some magnet schools get extra district allocations to support their programs, including CAPA 6-12, Montessori PreK-8 in Friendship, Obama 6-12 in East Liberty, Linden K-5 in Point Breeze and Dilworth K-5. Of them, CAPA gets the largest amount of extra district money -- more than $1.7 million -- for adjunct arts instructors.

However, unlike other schools with 9-12 programs, CAPA does not receive money for career and technology education. Allderdice, for example, is budgeted for $1.1 million in CTE money this school year.

More than a third of the principals added a paraprofessional. Morrow added 2.2 paraprofessionals from discretionary money. It received another four from the district because of large class sizes in kindergarten and first grade through the "leveling" process that looks at fall enrollment.

Principals have turned in their proposed budgets for the coming year and are now in the appeals process if they are dissatisfied with the district's allotment.

Ronald Joseph, district chief operations officer, said that any reductions for this fall are reflections of enrollment.

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


First Published April 5, 2014 11:57 PM

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