Photo courtesy of Kenneth Smythe-Leistico.

Many factors contribute to how well a child does in school. Now a report from the University of Pittsburgh looks at how race plays a role as well.

Earlier this week, Mayor Bill Peduto and Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for engagement and chief of staff, Kathy Humphrey, met with researchers on campus to discuss the findings in Understanding PRIDE in Pittsburgh: Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education. The new report from Pitt’s School of Education and The Race and Early Childhood Collaborative examines how building positive racial self-perceptions in children can improve their performance at school.

The report took nine months to produce, and was compiled from a variety of sources, including focus groups, surveys, interviews and classroom observations. Ken Smythe-Leistico, a lead researcher on the report and assistant director of Pitt’s Office of Child Development, believes the findings reflect inequalities still present in area public schools.

“We still, after decades of educational reform, have a large gap in performance beginning in kindergarten,” says Smythe-Leistico. “We see in third-grade test scores a gap between those who are under-resourced, as well as those from different racial minority groups.”

Researchers hope to close these gaps by encouraging parents and teachers to work together on communicating with children about race. They also call for increased partnerships between educational institutions and professional organizations throughout the region. The report suggests that taking these steps toward building positive racial-identity in children is essential, as it contributes to high self-esteem, as well as to higher grades and standardized test scores.

As Smythe-Leistico points out, the dialogue needs to happen sooner than later, since the report finds that infants as young as three months old are capable of categorizing people by race. Kids as young as five can even begin to exhibit race-based biases and preferences.

Smythe-Leistico understands that while race is an uncomfortable, even taboo subject for people to talk about, there are services available to help facilitate the conversation.

“Our office in particular has a 30-year history of working with parents to help them build their strength and their capacity to motivate, educate and be impactful in their children’s lives,” says Smythe-Leistico. “It’s much easier when you’ve had a chance to prepare for something to then be ready when those teachable moments come.”

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.