As the sound of children’s laughter echoed through the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, stakeholders from the fields of education, philanthropy and parental advocacy gathered in a cheerful boardroom to discuss one of Pittsburgh’s biggest problems: equity in education.

“I’m here representing a group whose voices are suppressed, and that’s the parents, mostly on the periphery,” said parent advocate Maria Searcy of the North Side. “My fight, my struggle, my passion is for parents who want to do the same for their children.”

Participants doodled their devotion to the cause at the NEXTpittsburgh salon on equity in education
Participants doodled their devotion to the cause at the NEXTpittsburgh salon on equity in education

The salon, hosted by NEXTpittsburgh during the week of Remake Learning Days, focused on how and why Pittsburgh’s educational systems are failing those most in need: predominantly African-American kids from impoverished Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

According to local advocacy group A+ Schools, African-American students represent the majority population in Pittsburgh Public Schools yet they are in the minority of students who reach or exceed expectations for success.

And while the contributing issues are familiar—segregated zip codes, a lack of economic development in the neediest neighborhoods, a history of urban economic failure and geography that perpetuates racism—the heartfelt and thoughtful discussions on race and justice in the salon demonstrated the level of concern and the urgent need for change.

It also generated some next-step ideas.

The discussion was led by four outstanding facilitators: educator and advocate Temple Lovelace, Ph.D., associate professor of Special Education at Duquesne University; self-described instigator and teacher at the Environmental Charter School, Michelle King; Lori Delale-O’Connor, Associate Director of R + D at the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh; and Scott E. Gutkowski, Chief Information and Technology at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Discussing equity in education at the Children's Museum.
Discussing equity in education at the Children’s Museum.
Discussing equity in education at the Children’s Museum.

One suggestion that arose from the start: Change the metaphors. Michelle King explained that limited resources within the current educational system creates winners, which means that some people inevitably lose.

When resources such as quality teachers, support, and funding are scarce, the neighborhoods who have access tend to hold on tightly. Reinventing the way Pittsburgh education is governed is essential, King says.

Shimira Williams of TekStart, a STEM-based before- and after-school program, pointed out the need for not only better education but also access to quality employment that makes kids want to stay in Pittsburgh for careers after graduation.

“The educational system is imbalanced, but (we) need to develop a pipeline for economic development,” Williams said.

As Pittsburgh moves forward into its next phase, she reminded the group to closely examine how the next big thing diverts our attention, which may affect our efforts toward our at-risk children.

“There are resources in this room in service of young people,” Lovelace noted. “Who are we leaving behind?”

Equity in education salon
Stan Thompson (left) and Jason Rivers

Extend the invitation

Pittsburgh’s ever-expanding networks—witness the Remake Learning Network with more than 200 members—can be key to including more families in the discussion about creating a more equitable educational system.

Sunanna Chand of the Remake Learning Network suggested that despite its racial challenges, Pittsburgh stands apart in opportunities to make connections and build relationships.

“How do we get more people to the table in terms of power and influence?” Chand asked.

Delale-O’Connor acknowledged that the salon participants are fortunate to speak with each other on issues of equity and improving learning spaces. “But to move toward equity, we need to make sure that the dialogue we started not only continues but becomes more encompassing to include the voices of those who have been excluded, as well as those who may be seen as peripheral,” Delale-O’Connor said. “Some of this connects to making sure that the voices of parents and students are amplified—that indeed is critical.”

Extending the invitation means thinking beyond just people involved directly in education and broadening the idea of stakeholders for issues of educational equity, she said.

“Educational equity is a workforce issue, and a housing issue, and a health care issue, and a policy issue, and we need to make sure that people who understand and represent other sectors are involved in these conversations as well,” Delale-O’Connor said.

Scott Gutkowski and Michelle King.
Scott Gutkowski and Michelle King.

Forge relationships

Searcy knows firsthand the time and energy necessary to fight for the resources allocated to the children of Pittsburgh Public Schools. She says she’s working in the trenches to fight for an equitable education for her two daughters, who attend Propel Northside. But knowing who to ask for help plays a big part in overcoming mediocrity.

“If you don’t forge relationships like I did with Temple — that’s why I’m here — then you don’t get invited to the table,” Searcy said.

For many, the issue is personal. They advocate for their kids, like Searcy, or for other kids they know.

Grable Foundation Executive Director Gregg Behr shared a memory of meeting a group of disadvantaged kids from Hays Manor, a McKees Rocks housing project, 23 years ago.

“This is very personal,” Behr said. “But how do we think about this in terms of systems, because it’s only when we address systems that we’re going to change things that are deeply personal.”

While the group agreed, Jennifer Howison, a teacher at the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh, said another important relationship to strengthen is within ourselves. “There’s a lot of personal work that happens with the teacher,” Howison said. “A lot of this is very heartfelt and a lot of people are working on themselves before they teach.”

Capturing thoughts and goals on paper before start of discussion.
Capturing thoughts and goals on paper before start of discussion.

Have a little faith

Gutkowski underscored the importance of trust among the players in conversations about equity in education.

“So many zip codes have been disenfranchised that they don’t trust a lot of what happens, so therefore it inhibits their ability to heal or to welcome or be welcomed into new communities,” Gutkowski said.

Tracey Armant of The Grable Foundation echoed the sentiment, but applied it to the way adults—and the system at large—must learn to trust the children they serve.

Adults must give African-American children the ability to direct their own learning, which is a key tenet of the Remake Learning Network, Armant said.

“We fundamentally believe in children’s ability to direct their own learning. If we don’t have faith, this doesn’t work,” she added.

Organize the parents

Searcy pointed to the creation of Pittsburgh Parent Power, a campaign to organize parents funded by The Heinz Endowments. Created in 2014, the project trained 50 participants across 10 organizations in coalition building, leadership and campaign development.

The hope is that it will serve as a model of community-based organizations supporting parents to lead school reform.

Lyn Krynski, coordinator of the Kidsburgh group, made an appeal for others to send their stories of success — of outstanding teachers, schools that are getting it right, parents who have found a way to better advocate for their kids–to the Kidsburgh publication to help get the word out about what’s working. (Note: readers are invited to do so, too.)

“We do have exemplars within our community,” said Krynski, “where people are doing it right as someone pointed out. We can learn from those if we know who and where they are.”

While it was challenging capturing the many points of discussion in the 90-mniute conversation, we hope you get a sense here of how it went. Of course, we welcome your comments below. It’s likely that NEXTpittsburgh will hold another salon or event on this issue so if you would like to be included, please send us your name and title by email. 

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Melanie is a free-lance copywriter and journalist whose work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Venus Zine and Maniac Magazine.