Pittsburgh Public’s Executive Director Of Equity Shares Her Plan For Systemic Change

Jan 20, 2017

Just last month, Angela Allie joined Pittsburgh Public Schools as the Executive Director of Equity. A PPS graduate herself, Allie said she always knew she'd return to the district where she started her education. 

The Pittsburgh native formerly taught English at Oliver High School in the North Side and served most recently as principal of Propel’s Andrew Street High School in Munhall.

She said her focus has always been education justice for traditionally under-served students.

“It’s something that was very evident even as I was growing up," she said. "And it’s something that became even more evident when I started teaching. And at that point I would argue that it would be quite impossible to continue to do work in urban education without thinking about equity and disparities and disadvantage on a daily basis."

Now, she is charged with eliminating racial disparities within the district.

In November, a hired consultant told the school board that the district’s black students were falling behind their white peers academically, no matter the student’s economic status.

The office was created in 1992 following a complaint from Advocates for African American Students against the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education. The complaint alleged the district had, “unlawfully discriminated against its African American students with respect to suspensions and discipline, distribution of class grades, exclusion from certain special programs and by virtue of the existence of a large, racially identifiable academic achievement gap between African American and white students in violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.”

Allie said she bases much of her work on the teachings of Gloria Ladson-Billings, a scholar who focuses on culturally relevant teaching.

90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider spoke with Allie about the challenges of equipping teachers with cultural competency and ensuring all students have equitable access to a quality education.

On equity in classrooms

“One of the myths is that equity is a thing. It's something that requires a system wide approach and so it happens at the classroom level for sure. But it's important that when we think and talk about equity we are thinking about the entire system. And classroom instruction being one part of that.

When you set up a culture that's fixed on academic success that believes no matter where you are coming from who you are what your background has been you still have the capacity to grasp this. That for me is first and foremost.”

Getting to cultural competency

“You need leadership at every level communicating and articulating that as part of the mission which again the Pittsburgh Public Schools is doing. It's not some elephant in the room that we're not discussing. We've just adopted a definition for culturally relevant pedagogy that we are going to be doing a lot of professional development around not just at the teacher level but at the executive level. It has to happen everywhere in order for it to be institutionalized.

It has to be a way of life a culture. It needs to start the leadership level and then when you scale down to schools you need to have transformative leaders who can engage in adaptive work not just technical tinkering. And when I think about what it takes to transform education you're looking at people who are agents of change. You're looking at educators who are going into these schools knowing that they are leading their teachers and their students and families from that moral imperative. That's something that I won't sit here and say to you that it's impossible to teach because that's something we're really working hard to do is really shape people's beliefs by giving them the information a lot of people don't realize in many ways in which the system works to produce inequality. And so it is our belief that if you had a better understanding of how we got here and that it isn't by accident and it isn't at the fault of our students and their families that this is something that we are in a position to do something about, the hope is that you use that information to develop the will to do something about it.

We're not talking about hosting one event and changing everybody's minds. We're not talking about running one initiative and saying we're doing the work. What it looks like to do the work is to live it in our regular conversations, to monitor it, to (prioritize) our decision making to examine our policies, our programs, our practices and constantly examine our beliefs. So it does take some anti-racist development. It does take racial identity development. It takes those methods as well in terms of getting people to a place where we can better articulate how to realize a vision of equity.”

On teachers’ responsibility

“Teachers cannot practice if they are not willing to invest in knowing who they teach. If you invest in knowing your students, understanding and honoring, not just knowing but actually honoring, truly deeply valuing their multiple intelligences, their capacity to be intelligent, their skill sets, their talents their gifts their creativity their language. If it's not like yours, especially if it's not like yours, to still honor that you can use all of that to say we can get where we need to go.

And you don't have to give anything up. You don't have to give up your culture. You don't have to give up your way of understanding the world.”

Being charged with systemic change

“What I tell myself, to not get overwhelmed initially, is that it is a process and we are right now able to develop students who can lead that work. That's what gives me hope is this idea that we don't have to start and finish right now in this term you know in these four or five years or by the time I retire, whatever have you. This is work that is your life's work that if you do it right you are bringing other people with you who can sustain the work. And what better way to empower youth than to have them initiate that process for themselves and their futures and their children and grandchildren.

So I understand that there's a there's a role we have in this. And then we are passing the baton on. So we always need to be thinking about sustainability and knowing that we might not necessarily be around for the total (vision) of it across society. But our charge at the school level is to make sure that each and every learner, regardless, has access to an equitable opportunity to learn and not just learn but to excel. Understanding that every child is has the potential and the ability.”