Higher graduation rates. Greater enrollment in advanced placement courses. Today education watchdog group A+ Schools released their annual report to the community, highlighting achievement growth at local public schools.
But in addition to the positive stories emerging from the report, two schools continue to hit sour notes. Of the Pittsburgh Public School District's five 6-12 schools, Westinghouse Academy and Milliones University Preparatory School consistently rank at the bottom.
"It's heartbreaking," Hill House President and CEO Cheryl Hall-Russell says of UPrep. "I'm concerned with the trajectory of that school. There are schools in other challenged neighborhoods around the city. Why this school is struggling more, I'm not sure."
At UPrep, a school with a "post-secondary focus" according to the report, only 34 percent of students are eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship for post-secondary education. And according to survey responses from 2013 only 29 percent of students were attending college or a trade school.
"It's certainly disturbing, but not shocking unfortunately," says community activist Tim Stevens who mentors students at UPrep. "It's a long-range issue. These are long-term deep-rooted problems."
For Westinghouse, the data is worse. Only 20 percent of students were eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise and only 22 percent were attending college or a trade school. Conversely, CAPA, a creative and performing arts school, boasts an 89 percent rate for Pittsburgh Promise eligibility and 80 percent of students were attending college or a trade school.
"There is some progress but it's just too slow. We're losing too many kids. Too many kids are dying. Too many kids are not Promise eligible," says Wanda Henderson, a member of the district's equity advisory panel. "Westinghouse has seen too much uncertainty. There needs to be some stability."
Another way the report measures success is through the algebra milestone, looking at how many students are taking algebra in 8th grade.
"The algebra milestone is very important," Superintendent Linda Lane said in her remarks at the press conference. "If you think it's only for people going to college it isn't. There are many many technical fields, very highly compensated technical fields that require higher math."
But at UPrep and Westinghouse none of the 8th grade students took algebra in the 2013-2014 school year. At CAPA 73 of the 111 8th graders took algebra. At Obama all 8th graders took algebra and at Science and Technology Academy 20 of the 55 students took algebra.
In other areas, UPrep and Westinghouse lag behind their peers to a smaller degree. Westinghouse had an 83 percent graduation rate while UPrep's is 79 percent. At CAPA, Obama and Sci-Tech, the rates are 97, 85 and 93 percent respectively.
"I'm not trying to make the case that there's been phenomenal growth," said Lane. "But nevertheless it took a lot of hard work to get there. We have to recognize the work people did to get the results we did."
At a press conference this morning hosted by the Campaign for a Fresh Start, chairwoman Katie McGinty challenged Gov. Tom Corbett on cuts to education funding during his tenure and the recent scandal surrounding his former special adviser on higher education Ron Tomalis. Taken together, said McGinty, those two issues have created a burden for Pennsylvania taxpayers.
Tomalis announced he would step down last week after Democrats, seizing on a Post-Gazette story, began questioning what exactly Tomalis was doing to merit being paid a $139,542 salary. McGinty said the governor has been unable and unwilling to provide details regarding Tomalis' work. And while Tomalis, a former Corbett education secretary, agreed to step down, his work as an adviser reportedly will boost his state pension.
"Mr. Tomalis is costing the taxpayer a huge price," McGinty said. "So latest count he's taken out about $200,000 of the public's limited resources. And now we know that the governor has seen fit to enable Mr. Tomalis to have a 25 percent boost in his pension as well. This is a huge cost burden to tax payers."
McGinty, whose group is backing gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf and other Democratic candidates, also criticized education funding cuts that have taken place during Corbett's term. According to McGinty, 77 percent of Pennsylvania school districts will have to raise property taxes as a result of decreased funding.
Pittsburgh teachers union President Nina Esposito-Visgitis explained the impact funding cuts are having on the Pittsburgh Public School District.
"Here in Pittsburgh. where Gov. Corbett's cuts have cost our public schools over $27 million in state revenue, our teachers have been demoralized as they've been made to watch their students — many times the neediest students of all — lose valuable services and programs that our teachers know their students need to succeed," said Esposito-Visgitis.
Corbett has been dogged by the education-funding issue throughout his campaign. His administration maintains that funding reductions were prompted by a reduction in federal support.
"Over the last four years, our administration has increased the state’s investment in our public schools by $1.46 billion to now historic levels," said Corbett's lieutenant governor Jim Cawley in a July 29 press release. "It’s shameful that the teachers’ union bosses continually perpetuate a lie to put their own interests over those of the students and teachers they serve."
Education funding by the state has increased in recent years, though not nearly enough to keep pace with the decline in federal support. And critics say that Corbett takes the blame, in part by refusing to impose a state severance tax on natural-gas drilling. At this morning's press conference, for example, was Lisa Stout-Bashioum, a current school board representative in the Brentworth School District running for a seat in the state House. She said Gov. Corbett could restore funding for education by imposing a tax on natural gas companies.
"In Allegheny and Washington counties, Tom Corbett has taken more than $60 million from our students since he was elected," Stout-Bashioum said. "Tom Corbett won't tax drillers even a little bit to help our children succeed. Why? Because children aren't donors."
On Aug. 13, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited the Hug Me Tight Child Life Center in the Hill District to announce a $250 million preschool development grant competition for early childhood education.
"We're working as hard as we can to expand access to high quality early learning opportunities," Duncan said. "Seeing the opportunities that kids have at a place like this is pretty remarkable."
According to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, half of the city's children up to age five don't have access to high-quality early learning opportunities like those offered by Hug Me Tight Daycare.
The preschool development grant can be used to provide early education opportunities for children from birth to 5 years old. The funds can be used to expand or create programs like early home visiting programs, where outreach workers provide parents with information on how to begin educating newborns and toddlers, or early head start programs like the one at Hug Me Tight Daycare.
"I honestly think it’s the most important investment we can make," said Duncan. "If they start a year or two behind, too often they can never catch up."
Duncan said studies have shown that society saves $7 for every $1 invested in early childhood education. These findings come from a study of children enrolled in an early childhood education center in Chicago.
"The U.S. relative to other industrialized nations ranks about 25th for spending on early childhood education," Duncan says. "Our children and our families deserve better."
The application process will be a joint effort between the mayor's office, the Pittsburgh Public School District, and local nonprofits. If Pittsburgh is selected funds can be distributed to a variety of sources including the school district, nonprofits, and community organizations like the YMCA or churches.
"Pittsburgh Public Schools has been working long and hard in this area of early childhood education and this opportunity to expand what we're doing is fabulous," said PPS Superintendent Linda Lane.
Applications for the grant are due by Oct. 14 and awards will be made in December 2014.
From 2008 to 2013, only two charter school applications have been approved by the Pittsburgh Public School District out of 15 proposed. On Feb. 2 at a PPS education committee meeting, the district’s charter school review teams recommended the denial of an additional three charter applications.
If the PPS board of directors follows these recommendations, which they have historically done, the district would have an 11 percent approval rate for charter schools over the past five years. The board will vote on the charter schools at a legislative meeting on Feb. 26.
According to a release from the district, the three applications for Homewood Children’s Village Collegiate Charter School, Provident Charter School for Children with Dyslexia, and Robert L. Vann Charter School should be denied because they lack curriculum or a plan for meeting the needs of all students, and do not provide expanded educational options beyond those available in the district
A more detailed description of the recommendations, from the district's press release, can be found after the jump:
Starting next month, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale will begin an audit of the Pittsburgh Public School District. At a Jan. 27 press conference, DePasquale said the audit is meant to help the district avoid a pending financial crisis and improve academic performance.
“Our audit will provide a road map for how we fix those problems,” DePasquale said. “We have to come up with a plan.”
The district is facing a $46.3 million budget deficit in 2016. The audit will look at factors ranging from what the district spends its money on, the impact of charter schools on the district’s budget and enrollment, and even student test scores.
“This is not about casting blame for past decisions,” DePasquale said. “This is not about throwing stones.”
However, DePasquale did highlight how state funding decisions have impacted the district. He said a decrease in state funding for education and elimination of charter tuition reimbursement for Pennsylvania school districts have contributed to the district’s looming budget deficit.
“Urban education in poor districts has taken a hit in state budgets,” DePasquale said. “There is a state responsibility that in my view is not being met."
The announcement was made in collaboration with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. While the mayor has no direct control over the school district, he said he hopes to serve as a mediator between district administrators, the teachers union, and foundations as they are faced with difficult decisions in the coming years.
“We’re facing a couple years of uncertainty,” Peduto said. “What we need is good information to make good decisions.”
What would Hazelwood’s 178-acre brown field look like if it were developed by teenage students from one of Pittsburgh’s private schools?
Hazelwood’s community leaders and stakeholders got the answer when they visited Winchester Thurston on Jan. 22. As part of their class on urban research and design, three groups of senior students presented different development plans for the former steel site.
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