Pittsburgh Public Schools
Photo by Mary Niederberger.

Two-thirds of last year’s third graders were not reading at grade level in the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), a huge decline from before the Covid pandemic. In 2019, 51% of children in third grade were reading at grade level.

This cohort of students was just over halfway through first grade when the pandemic closed their schools. Instead of being in classrooms for the rest of first grade and much of second, they learned at home or in learning hubs run by nonprofit organizations where they were kept in small groups or away from each other entirely.

Now, as schools are open, the annual Report to the Community from A+ Schools finds that PPS has a holdover problem from the pandemic: absenteeism.

“The data definitely demonstrates that we have struggled here in Pittsburgh,” says Sarah Silverman, chair of the A+ Schools board of directors.

She says the report reveals two important messages: “One, it’s still really important to have transparency, to pay attention to the data, and to look at it even when it’s not particularly pleasant. But also, that it’s really important that we all work together to bring the solution to bear.”

James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools, says pre-pandemic, in the 2019-2020 school year, 27% of PPS students were considered chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 days or 10% of school days. In the last school year, that rate climbed to 42% districtwide with ninth graders topping the absentee rate with 50% of them chronically absent.

“Our vision has always been a Pittsburgh where every child succeeds, knowing that the education of that child is critical to the child’s success,” Fogarty says.

A page from the A+ Schools report.

The organization is exploring an initiative to get every child to have perfect school attendance.

“We really truly believe that if we got every child attending every school every day, it would be a measure that would show that we are getting to that kind of excellence that we want for our kids, both in the community on our streets but also in our schools,” Fogarty says.

A+ Schools has started a social media campaign: “What’s your excuse to go” in which students can write why they want to be in school, such as for recess, friends, for band class, or art. Parents are being asked to add their excuses to go to school, too.

Fogarty says one of the roles of A+ Schools is to bring organizations that have different focuses together, because often one organization may be able to fill needs in which another is lacking.

With the “Report to the Community,” which was sent out to 15,000 households and delivered to more than 200 community locations, Fogarty says A+ is “really trying to help people understand how this community is rallying around our children.”

He says the role of data is not to cast blame but to shine light.

“Solving problems requires that we use data for light and not heat. To be honest about what’s not working and what will work requires us to really look at those problems with an eye toward solving them,” Fogarty says.

One problem other school districts have, that Pittsburgh has avoided, are teacher shortages. Fogarty points out that PPS teachers have a median income of $99,000 a year, which is a key to retention.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Wayne Walters. Photo by Ann Belser.

Reviewing the report, PPS Superintendent Wayne Walters says he has identified goals to improve the district’s culture, its systems and instruction.

Walters says he is planning to start a “period of inquiry” to get input from parents, students, teachers and all of the schools’ stakeholders for a new strategic plan for the schools. He said he wants to develop “culturally responsive, evidence-based training and instructional practices for teachers.”

The plan will also include new safety, health and wellness protocols for the schools, since the pandemic expanded those protocols to go beyond school safety and Covid mitigation to address challenges students face socially and emotionally, including their mental health and food security.

Walters says in the new strategic plan he also wants to expand school partnerships.

“I believe in the power of partnerships and effective communication to transform what people believe about our district and to truly formulate trust.”

He also wants to design and implement better systems in the schools and to better allocate school resources.

“Together, with a solutions-focused approach, we can develop a plan that ensures all students, regardless of ZIP Code, receive the high-quality robust educational experience they deserve,” Walters says.

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.