Mar 08 What’s next for PA schools? The state Ed Department isn’t talking, but Pittsburgh educators and advocates are
PublicSource (March 6, 2023) – Pennsylvania’s acting state education secretary, Khalid Mumin, has served in some of the state’s wealthiest and poorest districts. Most recently, he served as the superintendent of the Lower Merion School District in southeastern Pennsylvania, after seven years leading the Reading School District, one of the neediest in the state.
On the other side of the state, PublicSource spoke to five local educators and advocates about the state of education in the region and their expectations from the acting education secretary, who awaits confirmation by the state Senate. While they expressed hope and excitement about the new leadership, they also expressed concerns about education at the local level.
PublicSource made multiple attempts since Jan.18 to schedule an interview with Mumin but the Department of Education did not make him available, saying his schedule was reserved for meetings with legislators. PublicSource also sent questions via email but the department declined to answer them.
If the acting secretary comes to Western Pennsylvania, he is likely to hear advocacy for full-service “community schools,” consolidation of districts and even adoption by public schools of innovations found in charters.
Here are some issues and questions that the educators and advocates would like the acting education secretary to address.
How do we bring innovation to our schools?
LaTrenda Sherrill, one of the founding members of Black Women for a Better Education, said there are many opportunities in the region for workforce development and STEM education. She said some charter school models could be transitioned into traditional public schools as pockets of innovation.
“There is an opportunity for us to ensure that there are more young people succeeding at high levels if we’re able to learn from a lot of this innovation and connect a little bit more with what’s happening across districts.”
Sherrill said the state needs to be more inclusive of the community and elevate its grant opportunities to engage parents. She recommends that the state build upon Gov. Tom Wolf’s Middle-Class Task Force to create workforce development opportunities for students. She said initiatives and investments such as the PAsmart grants will allow districts flexibility to be innovative.
Jamie Baxter, executive director of Allies for Children, said the state should make it their top priority to innovate and support children with mental health struggles, prepare them for careers in high demand, invest in high-quality early childhood programs and ensure that all community partners are working together.
James Fogarty, executive director of the advocacy group A+ Schools said the state should consider consolidation among the state’s 500 school districts or shared services to create efficiencies and greater equity. “I know that’s difficult in a state that touts and prides itself on local control,” he said.
Robert Scherrer, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, emphasized leveraging community partnerships and out-of-school-time providers to knit together a support structure for students and families and increase their engagement.
How do we better support our teachers?
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said that increasing personnel support in schools to address the growing teacher shortage in the state should be made a priority. She said the state should provide money and bring in more paraprofessionals, counselors and social workers so that teachers are less burdened and better equipped to teach.
Esposito-Visgitis added that a solution for the teacher shortage and retention woes could be re-elevating the teaching profession by paying higher salaries.
Fogarty said that retaining teachers of color should be made a priority. He said the state should work toward the professional development of teacher candidates at college and university levels to diversify the teacher pipeline. He added that the state should provide mid-career or late-career support for teachers to ensure new learning techniques are implemented.
“We need a leader who’s going to be able to speak to our entire state and say, we’re creating welcoming schools, where we teach our full history, and that’s going to create kind of the welcoming environment that all teachers, no matter your background, will want to want to teach in,” he said.
How do we address learning loss and achievement gaps in schools?
Fogarty said the state should create designated funds for out-of-school programs and partnerships by passing the BOOST Act. Proposed by Rep. Michael Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, and Kathleen Tomlinson, R-Bucks, the bill would fund before- and after-school programs as well as summer programs for kids across the state.
The state should also start conversations around the vetting of the state’s many curriculums, Sherrill said. “We have standards, but people are just doing totally different things and at very different levels,” she said.
Scherrer said the state should provide flexibility to schools so that they can personalize learning to minimize achievement gaps.
“The educational model going into the pandemic focused so heavily on content and test scores and a one-size-fits-most approach,” he wrote in an email. “Now, more than ever, we see how important it is to inspire creativity, encourage collaboration, facilitate critical thinking, teach students how to communicate, and foster citizenship.”
How do we address the inequities in the system?
Baxter hopes that the state invests funds to ensure that all school districts are uplifted. “There’s a lot of districts that are kind of stuck in that middle, that have seen a lot of local revenue loss,” and have not seen an increase in state contribution, she said.
Sherrill said the state should improve opportunities for Black students to succeed. “When it comes to Black children, we have generally low expectations … and those low expectations turn into the lack of innovation at schools turn into the lack of exposure and opportunity for young people,” she said.
Fogarty said he believes that “ZIP-code-based funding,” in which school resources depend on the community’s affluence, leads to inequities. He said that such inequitable funding leads to situations where two school systems next to each other could have a vastly different distribution of resources. He said the state should work on a solution so that much of the spending is not borne by the local taxpayer.
Earlier this month, the court issued a ruling on the fair funding lawsuit that declared the current funding system unconstitutional, which could potentially transform the funding landscape of the state.
Scherrer said that with a revised funding formula, many local school districts would benefit and be able to provide additional support for students, improve academic outcomes, increase graduation rates and engage students in programs such as arts, athletics and extracurricular activities that may not currently be available to them.
Fogarty said he hopes that the education secretary would encourage greater data transparency around issues such as per-pupil funding or school facilities.
Esposito-Visgitis said community schools model could solve the problem of inequities in the system. Community schools are able to provide services based on what each neighborhood needs, such as after-school programs, learning opportunities for families or health support. She said that community schools would provide students with services that other students in wealthier districts would not need.
“When you have schools and communities that are lacking what they need … you see students that are acting out. … That’s what’s at stake,” she said. “We have to do our best to provide our schools, our communities, our citizens, with everything we can do to help them with what they need.”