The Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

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I am a teacher at Steel Valley Schools.

 

I am also an education blogger.

 

In order to belong to both worlds, I’ve had to abide by one ironclad rule that I’m about to break:

 

Never write about my home district.

 

Oh, I write about issues affecting my district. I write about charter schools, standardized testing, child poverty, etc. But I rarely mention how these things directly impact my school, my classroom, or my students.

 

I change the names to protect the innocent or gloss over the specifics with ambiguity.

 

In six years, it’s a maxim I’ve disregarded maybe once before – when writing specifically about how charter schools are gobbling up Steel Valley.

 

Today I’ll set it aside once more – specifically to talk about the insidious school segregation at work in Steel Valley elementary schools.

 
But let me be clear about one thing – I do this not because I want to needlessly agitate school board members, administrators or community members.

 

I do it because the district has specifically asked for input from stakeholders – and for the first time in years, teachers (even those living outside district boundaries) have been included in that designation.

 

School directors held a town hall meeting in October where 246 people crowded into the high school auditorium to present their views.

 

Last week there was a meeting with teachers and administrators to discuss the same matter.

 

I didn’t say anything at either gathering though I had many thoughts circling my head.

 

Instead I have decided to commit them here to my blog.

 

Maybe no one will read them.

 

Maybe that would even be best. I know that no matter what invitations are publicly presented, in private what I write could be used against me.

 

Yet I feel compelled to say it anyway.

 

So here goes.

 

Something stinks in Steel Valley School District.

 

It’s not the smell of excrement or body odor.

 

It’s a metaphysical stink like crime or poverty.

 

But it’s neither of those.

 

It’s school segregation.

 

To put it bluntly, we have two elementary schools – one mostly for white kids and one mostly for black kids.

 

Our district is located on a steep hill with Barrett Elementary at the bottom and the other schools – Park Elementary, the middle and high school – at the top.

 

The student population at Barrett Elementary in Homestead is 78% black. The student population at Park Elementary in Munhall is 84% white.

 

These schools serve students from K-4th grade. By 5th grade they are integrated once again when they all come to the middle school and then the high school. There the mix is about 40% black to 60% white.

 

But having each group start their education in distinctly segregated fashion has long lasting effects.

 

By and large, black students don’t do as well academically as white students. This is due partially to how we assess academic achievement – through flawed and biased standardized tests. But even if we look solely at classroom grades and graduation rates, black kids don’t do as well as the white ones.

 

Maybe it has something to do with the differences in services we provide at each elementary school. Maybe it has to do with the resources we allocate to each school. Maybe it has something to do with how modern each building is, how new the textbooks, the prevalence of extracurricular activities, tutoring and support each school provides.

 

But it also has to do with the communities these kids come from and the needs they bring with them to school. It has something to do with the increasing need for special education services especially for children growing up in poverty. It has something to do with the need for structure lacking in home environments, the need for safety, for counseling, for proper nutrition and medical services.

 

No one group has a monopoly on need. But one group has greater numbers in need and deeper hurts that require healing. And that group is the poor.

 

According to 2017 Census data, around 27% of our Steel Valley children live in poverty – much more than the Allegheny County average of 17% or the Pennsylvania average of 18%.

 

And of those poor children, many more are children of color.

 

Integrating our schools, alone, won’t solve this problem.

 

Putting children under one roof is an important step, but we have to ensure they get what they need under that roof. Money and resources that flow to white schools can almost as easily be diverted to white classes in the same building. Equity and need must be addressed together.

 

However, we must recognize that one of those things our children need is each other.

 

Integration isn’t good just because it raises test scores. It’s good because it teaches our children from an early age what the world really looks like. It teaches them that we’re all human. It teaches tolerance, acceptance and love of all people – and that’s a lesson the white kids need perhaps more than the black kids need help with academics.

 

I say this from experience.

 

I grew up in nearby McKeesport – a district very similar to Steel Valley economically, racially and culturally.

 

I am the product of integrated schools and have benefited greatly from that experience. My daughter goes to McKeesport and likewise benefits from growing up in that inclusive environment.

 

I could have enrolled her elsewhere. But I didn’t because I value integration.

 

So when Mary Niederberger wrote her bombshell article in Public Source about the segregated Steel Valley elementary schools, I was embarrassed like everyone else.

 

But I wasn’t shocked.

 
To be frank, none of us were shocked.

 

We all knew about the segregation problem at the elementaries. Anyone who had been to them and can see knew about it.

 

In fact, to the district’s credit, Steel Valley had already tried a partial remedy. The elementaries used to house K-5th grade. We moved the 5th grade students from each elementary up to the middle school thereby at least reducing the years in which our students were segregated.

 

The result was state penalty.

 

Moving Barrett kids who got low test scores up to the middle school – which had some of the best test scores in the district – tipped the scales. The state penalized both Barrett and the middle school for low test scores and required that students in each school be allowed to take their per pupil funding as a tax voucher and use it toward tuition at a private or parochial schoolas if there was any evidence doing so would help them academically.

 

Not exactly an encouragement to increase the program.

 

But school segregation has a certain smell that’s hard to ignore.

 

If you’ll allow me a brief diversion, it reminds me of a historical analogue of which you’ve probably never heard – the Great Stink of 1858.

 

Let me take you back to London, England, in Victorian times.

 

The British had been using the Thames River to wash away their garbage and sewage for centuries, but the river being a tidal body wasn’t able to keep up with the mess.

 

Moreover, getting your drinking water from the same place you use to wash away your sewage isn’t exactly a healthy way to live.

 

But people ignored it and went on with their lives as they always did (if they didn’t die of periodic cholera outbreaks) until 1858.

 

That year was a particularly dry and hot one and the Thames nearly evaporated into a dung-colored slime.

 

It stunk.

 

People from miles away could smell it.

 

There’s a funny story of Queen Victoria traveling by barge down the river with a bouquet of flowers shoved in her face so she could breathe. Charles Dickens and others made humorous remarks.

 

But the politicians of the time refused to do anything to fix the problem. They sprayed lime on the curtains. They even sprayed it onto the fecal water – all to no avail.

 

Finally, when they had exhausted every other option, they did what needed to be done. They spent 4.2 million pounds to build a more than 1,000 mile modern sewage system under London.

 

It took two decades but they did it right and almost immediately the cholera outbreaks stopped.

 

They calculated how big a sewage system would have to be constructed for the contemporary population and then made it twice as big. And the result is still working today!

 

Scientists estimate if they hadn’t doubled the size it would have given out by the 1950s.

 

This seems to be an especially important bit of history – even for Americans more than a continent and a century distant.

 

It seems to me an apt metaphor for what we’re experiencing here in Steel Valley.

 

Everyone knows what’s causing the stink in our district – school segregation.

 

Likewise, we know what needs to be done to fix it.

 

We need a new elementary complex for all students K-4. (I’d actually like to see 5th grade there, too.) And we need busing to get these kids to school regardless of where they live.

 

The excuse for having two segregated elementary schools has typically been our segregated communities and lack of adequate public transportation.

 

We’re just a school district. We can’t fix the complex web of economic, social and racial issues behind where people live (though these are matters our local, state and federal governments can and should address). However, we can take steps to minimize their impact at least so far as education is concerned.

 

But this requires busing – something leaders decades ago decided against in favor of additional funding in the classroom.

 

In short, our kids have always walked to school. Kids at the bottom of the hill in Homestead and West Homestead walk to Barrett. Kids at the top in Munhall walk to Park. But we never required elementary kids to traverse that hill up to the middle and high school until they were at least 10 years old.

 

We didn’t think it fair to ask young kids to walk all the way up the hill. Neighborhood schools reduced the distance – but kept the races mostly separate.

 

We need busing to remove this excuse.

 

I’ve heard many people deny both propositions. They say we can jury rig a solution where certain grades go to certain schools that already exist just not on a segregated basis. Maybe K-2 could go to Park and 3-4 could go to Barrett.

 

It wouldn’t work. The existent buildings will not accommodate all the children we have. Frankly, the facilities at Barrett just aren’t up to standard. Even Park has seen better days.

 

We could renovate and build new wings onto existing schools, but it just makes more sense to build a new school.

 

After all, we want a solution that will last for years to come. We don’t want a Band-Aid that only lasts for a few years.

 

Some complain that this is impossible – that there just isn’t enough money to get this done.

 

And I do sympathize with this position. After all, as Superintendent Ed Wehrer said, the district is still paying off construction of the high school, which was built in the 1970s.

 

But solutions do exist – even for financial problems.

 

My home district of McKeesport is very similar to Steel Valley and in the last decade has built a new 6th grade wing to Founders Hall Middle School and Twin Rivers, a new K-4 school on the old Cornell site.

 

I’m sure McKeesport administrators and school board members along with those at other neighboring districts could provide Steel Valley with the expertise we need to get this done. I’m sure we could find the political will to help us get this done.

 

And that’s really my point: our problem is less about what needs to happen than how to do it.

 

We should at least try to do this right!

 

We can’t just give up before we’ve even begun.

 

Debates can and should be had about where to build the new school, how extensive to have the busing and other details. But the main plan is obvious.

 

I truly believe this is doable.

 

I believe we can integrate Steel Valley elementary schools. And I believe we can – and MUST – do so without any staff furloughs.

 

We’re already running our classes with a skeleton crew. We can ensure the help and participation of teachers by making them this promise.

 

That’s what true leaders would do.

 

Sure, some fools will complain about sending their little white kids to class with black kids. We heard similar comments at the town hall meeting. But – frankly – who cares what people like that think? The best thing we could do for their children would be to integrate the schools so that parental prejudices come smack into conflict with the realities of life.

 

 

And if doing so makes them pull out of Steel Valley, good riddance. You never need to justify doing the right thing.

 

 
Again this will not solve all of our problems. We will still need to work to meet all student needs in their buildings. We will have to continue to fight the charter school parasites sucking at our district tax revenues.

 

But this is the right thing to do.

 

It is the only way to clear the air and remove the stink of decades of segregation.

 

 
So let’s do it.

 

 
Let’s join together and get it done.

 

Who’s with me?

 

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Charter Schools Are Quietly Gobbling Up My Public School District


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I work in a little suburban school district just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is slowly being destroyed by privatization.

 

Steel Valley Schools have a proud history.

 

We’re located (in part) in Homestead – the home of the historic steel strike of 1892.

 

But today it isn’t private security agents and industrial business magnates against whom we’re struggling.

 

It’s charter schools, voucher schools and the pro-corporate policies that enable them to pocket tax dollars meant to educate kids and then blame us for the shortfall.

 

Our middle school-high school complex is located at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill in our most impoverished neighborhood sits one of the Propel network of charter schools.

 

Our district is so poor we can’t even afford to bus our kids to school. So Propel tempts kids who don’t feel like making the long walk to our door.

 

Institutions like Propel are publicly funded but privately operated. That means they take our tax dollars but don’t have to be as accountable, transparent or sensible in how they spend them.

 

And like McDonalds, KFC or Walmart, they take in a lot of money.

 

Just three years ago, the Propel franchise siphoned away $3.5 million from our district annually. This year, they took $5 million, and next year they’re projected to get away with $6 million. That’s about 16% of our entire $37 million yearly budget.

 

Do we have a mass exodus of children from Steel Valley to the neighboring charter schools?

 

No.

 

Enrollment at Propel has stayed constant at about 260-270 students a year since 2015-16. It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.

 


The state funding formula is a mess. It gives charter schools almost the same amount per regular education student that my district spends but doesn’t require that all of that money actually be used to educate these children.

 

If you’re a charter school operator and you want to increase your salary, you can do that. Just make sure to cut student services an equal amount.

 

Want to buy a piece of property and pay yourself to lease it? Fine. Just take another slice of student funding.

 

Want to grab a handful of cash and put it in your briefcase, stuff it down your pants, hide it in your shoes? Go right ahead! It’s not like anyone’s actually looking over your shoulder. It’s not like your documents are routinely audited or you have to explain yourself at monthly school board meetings – all of which authentic public schools like mine have to do or else.

 

Furthermore, for every student we lose to charters, we do not lose any of the costs of overhead. The costs of running our buildings, electricity, water, maintenance, etc. are the same. We just have less money with which to pay them.

 

But that’s not all. The state funding formula also requires we give exponentially more money to charters for students labeled special needs – orders of magnitude more than we spend on these kids at my district.

 

Here’s how the state school code mandates we determine special education funding for charter school kids:

 

“For special education students, the charter school shall receive for each student enrolled the same funding as for each non-special education student as provided in clause (2), plus an additional amount determined by dividing the district of residence’s total special education expenditure by the product of multiplying the combined percentage of section 2509.5(k) times the district of residence’s total average daily membership for the prior school year. This amount shall be paid by the district of residence of each student.”

 

So authentic public schools spend a different amount per each special education student depending on their needs. But we have to pay our charter schools an average. If they only accept students without severe disabilities, this amounts to a net profit for the charter schools – and they can spend that profit however they want.

 

Moreover, if they reclassify students without disabilities or with slight disabilities as special needs, that means more money for them, too. Is anyone checking up on them to make sure they aren’t gaming the system? Heck no! That’s what being a charter school is all about – little transparency, little accountability and a promise of academic results (which don’t have to pan out either).

 

In the 2015-16 school year, Steel Valley paid the 19th highest amount of its budget to charter schools in the state (9%) and that number is growing.

 

According to the state Department of Education, here’s how our charter school spending has increased:

 

Steel Valley Per Student Charter School Tuition:

 

2000-01 – 2012-13

Non-Special Ed: $9,321

Special Ed: $16,903

 

2013-14

Non-Special Ed: $9,731

Special Ed: $16,803

 

2014-15

Non-special Ed: $10,340

Special Ed $20,112

 

2015-16

Non-Special Ed: $12,326

Special Ed: $25,634

 

2016-17

Non-Special Ed: $13,879

Special Ed: $29,441

 

2017-18

Non-Special Ed: $13,484

Special Ed: $25,601

 

2018-19

Non-special ed: $14,965

Special ed: $32,809

 

All of this has real world consequences in the classroom. It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. It means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children – just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top.

 

Our State Senator Jim Brewster understands the problem.

 

“Charters are strangling school districts, eventually will put them out of business. When you lose your school district, you lose your city,” he said in an article published by Public Source.

 

Brewster is a Democrat from McKeesport with four school districts being likewise “cannibalized” by charter schools.

 

Steel Valley School Board President Jim Bulger also characterized the situation as dire.

 

“ Charter Schools have become a twisted profit-making machine and not what they were originally intended for,” he said.

 

 “Originally charter schools were meant to serve a demographic that the public schools could not. For example being heavy in the performing arts or items like that. It’s unfortunate that several people have decided to twist this decent idea into a profit-making scheme that bleeds public education and its very soul.”

 

Much of the problem is in Harrisburg where legislators refuse to see or address the issue. And that’s often the best situation. Others actively make things worse.

 

For instance, the state used to reimburse each district for 30% of its costs to charter schools. Then in 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett cut that while slashing the education budget by an additional $1 billion a year.

 

Though some of that money has been restored in subsequent budgets, the charter reimbursement has not. Putting it back in the budget would go far to alleviating the bleeding.

 

But legislators need to get serious about charter school reform.

 

We can no longer afford a system that requires authentic public schools to fund their own competition. In fact, schools should never be in competition in the first place. Every school should be excellent – and the only way to get there is to start with adequate, equitable, sustainable funding in the first place.

 

There are seven charter schools within 5 miles of my district: Propel Homestead, Propel Braddock Hills, Environmental Charter School at Frick PA, Propel Hazelwood, Academy Charter School (in Pittsburgh), Propel Mckeesport, and Propel East (in Monroeville).

 

In addition, there are 55 private schools in the same area. Though the Commonwealth doesn’t have school vouchers, per se, it does have a backdoor version supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Many of these private and parochial schools gobble up $210 million of state tax dollars through these tax credit programs – the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. And there’s a bill currently being considered in Harrisburg to increase that amount by $100 million this year and even more in subsequent years!

 

It seems our legislature has no problem spending on the school system so long as it isn’t the PUBLIC school system.

 

And the reason usually given for such support is the results privatized schools get. They claim to be better alternatives to the public system, but this is rarely if ever true.

 

Test scores are a terrible way compare schools, but charter and voucher schools rarely – if ever – outpace their authentic public school competitors. They either get similar scores or in many cases do much, MUCH worse.

 

For instance, take Propel Homestead.

 

In 2015-16, it served 573 students in grades K-12. Only 22% of students were proficient in math and 40% in Reading on state tests. Both scores are below state average.

 

Meanwhile, at Steel Valley High School during the same time period, we served 486 students in grades 9-12. In math, 50-54% of our students were proficient and 65-69% were proficient in Reading. That’s above state average in both cases. And we had similar results at our middle and elementary schools.

 

However, test scores are poor indicators of success.

 

Steel Valley Schools also had lower class sizes. We averaged 12 students per teacher. Propel Homestead averaged 15 students per teacher.

 

And then we come to segregation. Though both schools had significant minority populations, Steel Valley Schools had 42% minority enrollment, most of whom are black. Propel Homestead had 96% minority enrollment, most of whom are black.

 

So the authentic public school option is demonstrably of better quality, but our inability to bus students to-and-from school opens us up to predatory school charlatans who take advantage of our poverty.

 

And the situation is similar in surrounding communities. Poor districts serving impoverished minority students become targets for privatizers looking to make a fast buck off of our kids and families. They offer them a lower quality education and a slick sales pitch.

 

They increase segregation, lower academic quality, and get away with much needed funds that could help kids get a better education.

 

This nonsense has to stop.

 

The only schools that should be receiving public tax dollars are the authentically public ones.

 

They should have to abide by the same regulation, the same accountability standards, the same democratic governance, the same enrollment standards as authentic public schools. Otherwise, they should not qualify for public tax dollars.

 

We’re boring holes in the ship to make rickety life boats.

 

It’s time to stop the madness.

 

It’s time to stop letting our best chance to help all kids get eaten alive by the sharks of privatization.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

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