Taking A Critical Look At Pittsburgh Public Schools As New Board Members Sworn In

Dec 3, 2015

Allegheny Traditional Academy on the North Side.
Credit Pittsburgh Public Schools

Moira Kaleida and Lynda Wrenn might both be new to the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board of Directors, but they’re not new to the district. 

Kaleida was born and raised in Pittsburgh, a 2002 graduate of Brashear High School. Wrenn has been a Pittsburgh Public Schools parent for 18 years.

Both women claim a strong passion for public schools and a belief that a great education is every child’s right.

When Wrenn’s oldest son entered kindergarten, she remembers being impressed with Linden Elementary School in Point Breeze. She later went back to school for a degree in education and student taught at Spring Hill Elementary.

“I couldn’t believe the disparity between the schools,” she said. “I just thought all the schools were like the school my son was at. It broke my heart.”

Reducing disparities and increasing equity have been major goals of the school district for the past several years, and there are some successes to point to, according to Carey Harris, executive director of the education advocacy group A+ Schools.

“We have huge gains in both black and white students qualifying for the Pittsburgh Promise by their GPA and the disparity between black and white students has decreased by seven points,” she said.

But the district hasn’t released a progress report on its 2012 Equity Plan since 2013. With an almost brand new board – as of Monday’s swearing in, only two of nine will have served for more than two years – and the search for a new superintendent underway, it could be the right time for the district to take a fresh look at policies aimed at improving student achievement.

After all, that is the No. 1 goal of the board: “Maximum academic achievement of all students.”

And policy making is the role of the board, though Harris said school board directors have historically had a tendency to get bogged down by the minute details of agenda items that come before them.

“I understand why they do that, because that’s what’s in front of them and they’re curious and that’s good, but I think it just gets them into the weeds and we need them to be up above the trees,” she said.

School board president Thomas Sumpter has served for 10 years and said every board member should have a solid understanding of the district’s goals: maximizing achievement, increasing equity and providing a safe and orderly environment for teachers and students. That way, he said board members don’t have to pick every agenda item apart to know if it’s in line with the board’s goals.

The most recent Board Watch report cards from A+ Schools show that board members don’t always seem to know where the line is between their role as policy makers and the administration's role as district manager.

“Board members should trust the administration to carry out activities that are in line with the policy, they shouldn’t dip below that line, they shouldn’t try to manage the district themselves,” Sumpter said. “And … the administration shouldn’t be coming above the line in terms of setting policy or direction for the board itself.”

According to Harris, the biggest tool that the board has for setting policy is its budget, and specifically its funding formula.

“A $550 million organization, your budget … is your biggest document of your priorities,” she said.

Right now, the individual schools’ budgets are based largely on the size of a building’s student population. Harris said the board should consider moving to a student-based approach, something for which A+ Schools is also advocating at the state level.

“You count your kids and you add extra weights based on student needs and you drive dollars out like that … so that we’re making sure we’re getting adequate resources based on what kids need not based on necessarily legacy costs,” she said.

Harris said the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union is another opportunity for policy-setting, looking at things like how teachers are deployed across schools and compensated based on performance.

Kaleida and Wrenn are both interested in a community schools approach, which was one of the recommendations in the February report from Mayor Bill Peduto’s Education Task Force.

Kaleida said the district should make sure students’ needs are met not only inside but also outside of school.

“We know that when kids are taken care of, when they’re fed, when they have a safe place to live, a safe community to be in that they’re going to be more likely to succeed, to want to be in school and to stay in school,” she said.

Wrenn’s pie-in-the-sky dream is a free, district-wide after-school program, where kids can get homework help, exercise and time to socialize -- and where parents will know their children are safe.

But many of these initiatives will be dependent upon whom the board chooses as superintendent.

Harris said the district needs someone who has experience running a multi-million dollar organization, with thousands of employees, smartly and strategically.

“We need somebody with that skill set, but also (who) understands education. This is not a private sector company, it is a public institution that is trying to educate our children,” she said. “I think we need somebody with a track record of making hard decisions and of really creating a culture of change and leading an organization through continual improvement.”

At this time, board members aren’t willing to discuss what they want to see in a top administrator, saying that it’s ultimately up to the community.

“We have to take this walk together. The school board, the administration, the civic community, the public as such, the foundations, business community, we all have to work together for what’s best for our children,” Sumpter said. “You’ve heard the quote, 'it takes a village to raise a child.' It takes everybody to educate children these days.”

Though three of the board members who will choose a new superintendent won’t officially take their seats until next week, it appears that the wheels are already in motion for finding a new superintendent.

Last month, at the same meeting when the board voted to absorb Wilkinsburg middle and high school students into Westinghouse High School, it also quietly approved a $100,000 contract with New York-based Perkins Consulting Group to lead the superintendent search.

Kevin Carter, founder and CEO of the Adonai Center for Black Males, will also join the board next week. He was unavailable for an interview as this story was reported.