Pittsburgh school board wants extension to close racial achievement gap
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A 20-year quest for racial equality in Pittsburgh Public Schools likely will last at least two more years.
The city school board is scheduled to vote later this month on a proposed memo of understanding with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that gives the district two more years to reduce racial inequality for students, including academic achievement, discipline and resources.
"The measures put in place have produced significant, positive results, but the work is not done," said Shannon Powers, spokeswoman for the Human Relations Commission.
The roots of the memo are a 1992 racial discrimination complaint filed by the Advocates for African-American students, a group of parents and educators.
The school board voted in 2005 to settle the long-standing case, and the agreement was finalized in 2006. The district contended many of the action steps were covered in its Excellence for All agenda.
Time has run out on the conciliation agreement, so a memo of understanding -- which also is legally enforceable -- is in the works to extend at least some measures from the conciliation agreement.
At its agenda review meeting Wednesday, the board is scheduled to review the proposed memo of understanding. The memo is expected to be up for a vote Sept. 26. The commission is to sign off after the board votes.
The commission would review the district's progress twice annually. When the memo expires Aug. 30, 2014, the commission will issue a finding as to whether the district has made significant progress.
If it has not, the district would have to review and revise its equity plan based on an independent evaluation.
While the commission recognizes the district has made progress, the proposed memo states:
"The PHRC, after review of materials submitted by the district pursuant to the agreement, is not prepared to conclude that the district has achieved sufficient progress with respect to elimination of the academic achievement gap and other measures outlined in the agreement to justify termination of the agreement."
The memo notes that the advocates and the district "share a common goal of providing equal educational opportunities for all children, regardless of race, within the district."
The memo commits the district to continue having a coordinator of the district's equity initiatives as well as to continue having an equity advisory panel.
It calls for reviewing and acting on certain data according to race, including achievement, discipline, special program data as well as capital and professional support available at each school.
It also calls for the district to evaluate various initiatives it does now and make any necessary modifications.
At the same meeting, the board is expected to vote on the district's new equity plan, called "Equity: Getting to All."
In the report, a consultant, urban sociologist Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, said Pittsburgh was doing the right things but needed to do them with a clearer, more coherent strategy.
School district superintendent Linda Lane said, "I think the timing of the memo of understanding and our equity plan coming together at the same time is good."
Whether there were a new agreement or not, Ms. Lane wanted to continue the work of the equity advisory panel set up under the conciliation agreement.
Ms. Lane said the district has made progress on achievement issues, but needs to make "better progress."
"Having their support and their advisory efforts are helpful there," she said. "People in the community talk to them. We get a chance to hear from some folks in the community we might not always have direct contact with."
Wanda Henderson, a member of both the advocates and the equity advisory panel, has fought for equal opportunities for more than two decades.
She said the option at this point was to agree to a memo of understanding or go to court for a long process.
"Our whole point is we want students to achieve. ... The advocates and the equity panel are in agreement to try to give the district another two years to see if they can make substantial progress.
"If not, if after two years they don't make substantial progress, the advocates will have to consider other options," she said.
Ms. Henderson called for accountability.
"The community and everyone else really need to hold the district accountable for this lack of progress," she said. "It's been going on for years. Nobody wants to talk about it, but we're losing kids by the generations."
She thinks part of the problem is some set expectations that are too low for African-American students.
"If you believe all students can learn and you have that expectation and hold people accountable for that, that will make a difference," she said.
Ms. Henderson said the district's equity plan "looks like a wonderful document, but if the document and what's in there doesn't get results, it's just another pretty document."
The proposed memo noted some progress in African-American achievement on state math and reading tests although it was not updated for the 2012 results, which the district overall found disappointing.
The data showed a greater percentage of African-Americans taking Advanced Placement courses and identified as gifted, although the figures were small.
One of the larger changes was in the percentage of African-Americans in grades 9-12 who received at least one suspension of one to three days. It fell from 57 percent to 39 percent, a drop of 18 percentage points from 2006-07 to 2010-11.
The proposed memo can be found in the board's agenda review materials for the education committee on the district's website, www.pps.k12.pa.us.
First Published September 18, 2012 12:00 am