By Maggie Weaver
“We conclude that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” — Chief Justice Earl Warren, 1954
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate schools across the nation. The case, Brown vs. Board of Education, became a cornerstone of the civil rights movement.
Brown vs. Board of Education passed 64 years ago, and Pittsburgh schools are at the highest segregation point since the ruling.
The Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) system is made up of 54 institutions. These schools vary within three categories: public, charter and magnet. The PPS website divides the student population into three demographics: White (33%), African American (53%) and Other (14%).
With these statistics, PPS seems diverse–less than half of the overall population is white. But the numbers tell a flawed story.
Niche.com, a website that collects information on schools across the U.S., attributes grades to each school based on academic success, diversity, sports, food, teachers and more. The site ranks public and private schools by these grades.
Allderdice High School is listed by Niche.com as the number one high school in Pittsburgh. The school, located in Squirrel Hill South, has an 81% reading proficiency and a 64% math proficiency. 86% of students are expected to graduate. The student makeup includes 47.3% White, 41.5% African American and 11.2% Other.
Academy at Westinghouse, a high school located nearby in Homewood, is a completely different story. The students hold a 21% reading proficiency and an 8% math proficiency, the average graduation rate at 62%. Out of the 433 students that attend Westinghouse, 96.4% are African American, 2.9% Other, and 7% White.
The Triblive, a news source local to Pittsburgh, notes that Allderdice is classified as the “white school” by PPS pupils. [yet it is 40% black, thus arguably more diverse, in the literal sense of the term, than Westinghouse. The issue must partly be the tracking system at Dice.]
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that African Americans only make up 21.6% of Pittsburgh’s population, yet make up 53% of the public school community; over 12 of the city’s public institutions are composed of 90% black students.
With segregation of this magnitude, Pittsburgh Public Schools are harming educational success.
This “re-segregation” trend of PPS began in the 1980s, when families began to flee the city; white families are continuing to move towards suburbs today. Lower Burrell High School, located 20 minutes northeast of Homewood, is a physical representation of this flight.
563 students attend Lower Burrell, 95.2% of them White. 2% are African American, 2.8% Other. 77% hold a reading proficiency (compared with Westinghouse’s 21%), and 67% are proficient in math (Westinghouse is 8%).
The Triblive reports that, “Schools with predominantly black students tend to have lower rates of achievement, graduation and post-secondary education, and higher rates of teacher turnover, absenteeism and discipline problems.”
Students at Burrell and Westinghouse are isolated from diverse communities.
The Century Foundation, a think tank that collects research and political analysis, notes the benefits of racially diverse schools. Academically, students who attend an integrated institution will have higher test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment. Integrated classrooms boost leadership skills and self-confidence, while raising a racially-aware population.
Integration goes beyond school students. According to the Post-Gazette, a racially diverse staff “is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share and greater relative profits.”
In April of 2017, PPS publicized a new strategic plan, “Expect Great Things.” This plan, in action from 2017-2022, targets school diversity and racial performance disparity. PPS aims to increase the success of African-American students and increase proficiencies in math and reading through all schools.
With the positives outlined, solutions seem straightforward: advocate for a higher rate of integration.
But it’s not that simple.
School systems are a map of neighborhoods, communities divided by socioeconomic status. In Homewood, where Westinghouse is located, the average household income is less than $25,000. In 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Pittsburgh’s median income for a household was just under $42,500. The average in Lower Burrell is $57,686.
The Triblive highlights Western PA’s deeply segregated neighborhoods, stating, “blacks here fare far worse than whites on a slew of quality-of-life metrics, from employment to home ownership to educational attainment.”
According to the article, one third of black Pittsburghers live in poverty, while only 15% of white Pittsburgh residents find themselves in the low-income pockets.
So, Pittsburgh attempts redistribution tactics. The reorganization of school district by neighborhoods in 1995 aimed to focus efforts on improving all schools, rather than drive students towards better performing institutions.
Stephen Kotok, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, reported that the neighborhood-oriented approach has,“seen pockets of successes, it’s not the norm,” in a conversation with Triblive.
As the city’s endeavors lack success, is integration reliant on the families? I suggest some thing like this: The city endeavors haven’t succeeded overall. But parents still have a choice.
They can choose to place their children in a private school, place their child’s name in a charter school lottery or contribute to integration by staying within their neighborhood or magnet public schools.
The Environmental Charter School (ECS), is one of the highest rated upper schools in the Pittsburgh School system; Niche.com awards the school an A-. The upper school, located in Regent Square, is composed of 67.5% White students, 18.2% African American and 14.4% Other. In the fall of 2018, ECS is hoping to expand into Garfield, a primarily non-white neighborhood.
In an article regarding this recently-approved expansion published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ira Weiss, a solicitor for PPS comments that, “the district believes Environmental Charter’s demographics aren’t representative of the city school system as a whole.”
Pittsburgh’s group of magnet schools aims to target students with specific interests, such as the arts or technology. The Creative & Performing Arts School (CAPA), located in downtown Pittsburgh, achieves an A rating by Niche.com, listed as the second best public school in PPS (behind Allderdice).
57.4% of CAPA’s 948 students are White, 30.9% African American and 11.7% Other.
Who holds the responsibility for desegregating PPS, the city or its residents?
The Post-Gazette refers to race in Pittsburgh as, “a tale of two cities, in as much as the two major racial groups have not found ways to live a more integrated existence in terms of where they live and the social activities they participate in.”
Neighborhoods can be referred to by their race; Triblive notes that students refer to Allderdice High School as “the white school.”
The Post-Gazette reports that, “Segregated neighborhoods are products of public policies as well as the result of discriminatory housing practices by real estate agencies, mortgage lenders and private housing providers.”
Pittsburgh’s segregated education system is deep-rooted in the city’s housing affordability. Low-income residents are forced into pockets of the city, unable to afford housing in the more affluent areas. This correlates with education quality; disadvantaged neighborhoods are linked to lower-performing schools.
In an effort for reformation, the Post-Gazette suggests that Pittsburgh use public funds to increase housing integration.
But in recent months, the developers have been tearing down affordable housing units in low-income neighborhoods, replacing them with luxury apartments, upscale groceries or pricey restaurants. Residents that populated these units are displaced, shoved out of the city or into less affluent neighborhoods.
In order to re-integrate the education system, Pittsburgh needs to reflect on its own diversity.
Developing affordable housing near schools with higher success rates will diversify the student population. Open spaces in charter and magnet schools specifically for low-income students. As a parent, keep children in the public school system.
An integrated community is proven to be beneficial for education. With intentionality, Pittsburgh can take steps towards a racially diverse and academically successful school system.
Maggie Weaver is a NewPeople intern and a member of the NewPeople Editorial Collective.