Schools and the city fabric
In making hard decisions about cutbacks, Pittsburgh´s schools must keep the public interest in mind, too
Saturday, Feb. 11, 2006
By Thomas Hylton
Pittsburgh’s financial crisis has now enveloped its schools. Partly because some of its tax revenues were shifted to bail out the city government, the Pittsburgh School District faces a $6 million deficit at the end of this year, which will balloon to $45 million by the end of 2007.
To cut costs, the school board is expected later this month to approve a major reorganization of its facilities. It will close 22 schools, move three schools to other buildings, and create a new school in an existing building.
The proposal seems to offer much-needed fiscal discipline in a district that spends more per pupil than 95 percent of Pennsylvania’s school districts and uses about a third more space than necessary. But the ephemeral criteria being used to judge which schools should close - standardized test scores over a three-year period - may hinder, not help, Pittsburgh’s ability to attract and retain the families it needs for its long-term economic and social health.
Too often, school districts make decisions solely on their own perceived needs, with no regard for the impact of their actions on the larger community. In recent decades, hundreds of distinctive neighborhood schools have been closed across the commonwealth, only to be replaced with generic mega-schools to which students are bused. This is often done in the name of efficiency, the need for modern facilities, and the desire for a campus-like setting. In the case of Pittsburgh and other urban districts, neighborhood schools have often been eliminated as part of busing programs to desegregate schools. Whatever the reason, removing local schools often leads to neighborhood decline.
Statewide, the loss of neighborhood schools has been a major factor in what the Brookings Institution calls the “hollowing out” of Pennsylvania – disinvestment in older urban areas in favor of developing suburbs.
Two of Pittsburgh’s greatest assets are walkable neighborhoods and the sense of place and belonging that history and tradition have bestowed upon them. Having a nearby school is a major reason why many families move to a neighborhood in the first place. And as a school serves successive generations, it becomes a cherished landmark that gives a neighborhood its identity and appeal. As the Pittsburgh School District downsizes, a prime consideration should be the location of the schools to be retained and their potential to preserve or revive neighborhoods.
Superintendent Mark Roosevelt says children’s educational needs will outweigh all other considerations. To that end, the district contracted with the Rand Corporation to rate the district’s schools based on up to three years of standardized test scores in reading and math. The schools showing the most progress are to be retained and low-performing schools will be closed.
But standardized testing provides only a limited measure of a school’s worth, and past performance is not a reliable indicator of future success. What does have staying power is geography. The streets and buildings that comprise neighborhoods may improve or decline, but they never go away.
Although Americans are understandably loathe to admit it, research shows that schools have only a modest effect on the academic performance of their students. As the eminent educational sociologist, James Coleman, reported, “the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.” The hard truth is, you can’t fix schools without fixing the neighborhoods in which their students live.
That’s why the Pittsburgh School District needs to partner with city government to promote neighborhoods even as it works to improve its schools. Research indicates the most promising avenue for improving academic achievement by low and moderate income students is a high-quality preschool program. Such programs are best provided in children’s neighborhoods, where they are most accessible to parents.
The Harrisburg School District, which is controlled by the mayor, recently eliminated its middle schools and replaced them with a system of neighborhood schools that house children from 3- years-old through eighth grade. The district offers a half-day program, year-round, for 3- and 4-year-olds. Three of the district’s neighborhood schools have health clinics. Likewise, Pittsburgh’s decision to create more K-8 schools (when all the grades are housed in the same building) can serve as a neighborhood revitalization strategy as well as a sound educational policy.
Despite its sweeping scale, the proposed reorganization of Pittsburgh’s schools will provide relatively modest savings. When fully implemented, the downsizing will save $15 million annually, about 3 percent of the district’s current budget.
On the other hand, providing transportation will cost the school district $31 million this year, something that could increase substantially if oil prices rise. Pittsburgh school buses carry 25,600 students nearly eight million miles a year, placing unnecessary wear and tear on the city’s streets, adding to its traffic congestion, polluting its air, wasting energy, and contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic.
Ronald Violi, former head of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, recently told a state legislative committee there will be serious medical and financial consequences if the obesity trend is not reversed. He suggested young people need 30 minutes a day of physical activity. What better way to save money and promote healthy lifestyles than to encourage as many students as possible to walk to a neighborhood school? PennDOT has a specific grant program for municipalities seeking infrastructure improvements to create safe routes for walking. And while school buses degrade the environment, school crossing guards improve it. Crossing guards provide “eyes on the street,” increase everyone’s safety and strengthen the fabric of walkable communities.
Pittsburgh’s schools must focus on neighborhoods. Neither can have durable success without the other.