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For some Black families in Pittsburgh, finding the right school means choosing between diversity and academic rigor

Doris Harvin-Taylor, left, speaks about the choices they’ve made for their children’s education, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, at their home in Morningside, beside her husband Kwame Taylor.
Doris Harvin-Taylor, left, speaks about the choices they’ve made for their children’s education, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, at their home in Morningside, beside her husband Kwame Taylor. The couple was part of a study by the Pittsburgh College Access Alliance and the University of Pittsburgh which interviewed Black families about their educational experiences to come up with paths forward. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

For Doris Harvin-Taylor, navigating the options for schools in Pittsburgh is “exhausting.”

Her 12-year-old son Joshua attends The Neighborhood Academy, a private college preparatory school. She and her husband, Kwame Taylor, like the student diversity and values of the school, and it’s where they would like to send their 10-year-old daughter, Abigail next fall.

Abigail currently attends Dilworth PreK-5, a magnet school in Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS]. They’ve had a great experience there, but Harvin-Taylor is concerned about the social and learning environment at some of the district’s middle schools. “Your surroundings sometimes are everything,” she said.

Choosing K-12 schools can present a dilemma to Black families in the Pittsburgh region, according to new research from local nonprofits and the University of Pittsburgh funded by The Heinz Endowments*. Though parents’ concerns are not monolithic, some noted that public schools can offer greater student diversity but can lack resources due to systemic inequities. Private schools, on the other hand, can provide more resources at a greater price, but the predominantly white spaces can be socially isolating. 

For some families, neither system offers a clear path to college or success. In both, families may face racial and economic barriers to opportunities.

For years, several nonprofits have provided enrichment opportunities and financial support to reduce these barriers and prepare students for college. Collectively known as the Pittsburgh College Access Alliance [PCAA], the organizations partnered with Pitt in 2018 to interview Black families about their educational experiences and come up with paths forward. 

The group, which spoke with about 50 people, says that improving teacher diversity, equitably funding schools and investing in diversity, equity and inclusion training are among the efforts needed to address disparities. Leaders of the nonprofits believe that now is the time for school districts, government leaders and community members to act, especially given the additional disruption of many students’ educations during the pandemic. They’re sharing the report with more than 100 local leaders and organizations in hopes that they’ll help to build on its findings.

“I think that the Pittsburgh region needs to almost draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is not good enough. We are not doing right by our children. We are not doing right by our families of color in the city,’” said Esther Mellinger Stief, executive director of the Crossroads Foundation, a PCAA member organization.

There’s a lot of ground to cover: In Pittsburgh, about 21% of Black residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 53% of white residents do, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey.

Academic rigor or student diversity?

The Neighborhood Academy, which currently operates an all-boys middle school, announced in October that it plans to open a middle school for girls in fall 2023. Harvin-Taylor estimated that she got an email about the new school at 11:40 a.m. one day that month and was at the school within 30 minutes, filling out paperwork for Abigail. 

“This is how serious I am about their education,” she said. “When I saw this opportunity, I was like, ‘This is so great for you because you’re going to be coming in with girls who are probably scared, too; it’s going to be a small class; and you guys are going to get so much attention.”

Many of the parents who participated in the PCAA report chose to send their children to private schools out of a desire for greater academic rigor, said James Huguley, chair for the Race and Youth Development Research Group at Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems. Public schools in the region’s urban areas are often under-resourced, and he said the gaps can show up in a variety of ways.

“Sometimes they have teachers that are less experienced or less qualified. Sometimes they don’t have the support resources and social workers or counselors. And many times, they don’t have the high-level rigorous courses that families are looking for,” he said. “For higher education, those are very clear barriers.”

At the heart of the issue is school funding, Huguley said. Pennsylvania ranks 45th in state funding for K-12 education, with the commonwealth covering 38% of the costs. An ongoing lawsuit against the state argues that the state’s school funding system shortchanges low-income students and is unconstitutional. PPS, though, spends more per student on average than the widely varied districts in the state. 

For families who participated in the report, attending private school came with its own sets of challenges, including more instances of direct discrimination. Many felt that their private schools had not sufficiently invested in recruiting staff of color or providing training in diversity, equity and inclusion, Huguley said. (On the public school side, PPS is seeking to improve its teacher diversity.)

Abigail Harvin-Taylor, reads as part of her fifth grade homework on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, at home in Morningside. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Harvin-Taylor and her husband would like to see more Black teachers among The Neighborhood Academy’s staff. 

“I don’t want them to look at my son and see, when he’s passionate about something, they’re in fear or they see aggression,” Harvin-Taylor said. “Or my daughter, when they see her passionate about something, they see attitude.”

The cost of private school can also pose barriers and lead to isolation in predominantly white and affluent schools. Chantele Mitchell-Miland’s two sons have attended Central Catholic, a private, all-boys school in Pittsburgh. For her, it was not about affording tuition for the school, but other outside expenses that posed a challenge. 

“I more or less could afford the schooling for my kids, but, it was like, well, we can’t go on a ski trip. For my older son, I packed lunch for him all the time. I couldn’t afford to buy him lunch. And I felt like sometimes that made him stand out,” she said. 

At The Neighborhood Academy, which serves low-income families, Harvin-Taylor said she was able to have her son’s tuition waived because she transports him to school. While all students receive scholarships to attend The Neighborhood Academy, which is funded partly through donations, the school requests that families make monthly tuition payments based on their income. “We would have been paying a pretty penny” without a scholarship, she said.

A stereotype poses challenges across public and private schools

The dilemma over school choice that some Black families in the region face was not news to Marcia Sturdivant, the president and CEO of NEED, a nonprofit that has provided scholarships and college preparatory services for Black students since 1963. But the finding was reaffirming, she said.

She sees common areas for improvement in both public and private schools.

“There may be more diversity in some public school settings, but nonetheless, the idea of African American children being perceived as scholars or gifted or capable or highly academically inclined is just not there all the time,” she said. 

Monroeville resident Marla McCreary’s two children were part of the public Gateway School District years ago before transferring to Winchester Thurston, an independent preparatory school in Shadyside. A major reason for her decision was Gateway’s refusal to test her daughter for its gifted program in 2011 when she was in third grade, she said. 

“I was denied even her getting tested because one of her teachers said she didn’t have good leadership skills. But leadership skills don’t have to do with your aptitude,” said McCreary, who attended an event about the PCAA report but did not participate herself.

McCreary feels that, even though her children did well academically at Gateway, they missed out on opportunities that other children had because they couldn’t be part of the program. Gateway Superintendent William Short wrote in an email that the district “can’t speak on individual student matters” but added that its “current practice uses multiple criteria in its consideration of gifted services in all cases.”

When students are not challenged, they’re not set up for success, said Esohe Osai, assistant professor of practice in the School of Education at Pitt. 

“If they’ve been dumbed down for much of their educational career, they’ve been told that they weren’t smart enough, they weren’t capable, they could not succeed in more challenging, rigorous work,” Osai said.

Chantele Mitchell-Miland, right, and her sons, David Mitchell, left, 24, and Ramon Miland, center, 17, plan a family trip down south together in Mitchell-Miland’s Larimer home, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Nonprofits step up to support students

The enrichment programs offered through PCAA member organizations have helped offset the challenges in both public and private schools by connecting Black students with one another and providing academic rigor, Huguley said.

Crossroads, a nonprofit that provides services such as tuition assistance, pre-college programs and career workshops, aims to help students view themselves as capable and expose them early and frequently to college. Mitchell-Miland got involved with Crossroads when her older son, David Mitchell, was in elementary school. Her younger son, Ramon Miland, is a high school student at Central Catholic with a scholarship from Crossroads. 

Her experience with Crossroads has been highly positive, she said. The organization not only helped her financially but also helped her sons navigate decisions about their future. 

“They have counselors that monitor the academic progress, which was very helpful,” Mitchell-Miland said. “It was nice to be able to have the extra support.”

An old family photo of Chantele Mitchell-Miland, far left, and her oldest son, David Mitchell, bottom left, when he was a little boy at a school function, sits on the mantle of Mitchell-Miland’s Larimer home, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. The mother said she’s always made a strong effort to have her boys in private school. Mitchell, now 24, graduated from Central Catholic in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

McCreary’s family has been associated with the Fund for Advancement of Minorities through Education [FAME] since 2015, when her children were in middle school. She believes that being a part of FAME, which provides merit-based scholarships to attend partner schools, allowed her children to broaden their horizons. 

Her children benefited from the extracurricular opportunities offered by FAME, including participation in national conferences and competitions or college tours in other states, she said. Along with offering tutoring services and SAT preparation, FAME assisted her family financially. 

“Without FAME, I don’t think my husband and I would have been able to afford this kind of an education,” McCreary said. 

‘We should listen to them’

Now that the report has been published, Huguley said it’s important to work with the PCAA to consolidate resources for parents about their options for schooling and after-school opportunities.

At Pitt, Huguley is also researching schools that “have made great things happen” by improving achievement, closing racial gaps and reducing disciplinary infractions. So far, the researchers have identified more than 30 schools in Greater Pittsburgh that seem to have made such gains in recent years, he said. He declined to name the schools, as the researchers had not yet met with the principals, but he expects a report to be released early next year.

The report from PCAA joins other recent studies that document severe inequities in the Pittsburgh region, and it’s rooted in parents’ perspectives, Huguley said.

“It tells us what parents say they need to be successful, what they need in these school environments, what they need at a policy level,” he said. “They’re telling us what they need to overcome unjust inequalities, and I think we should listen to them.”

*The Heinz Endowments also provides funding to PublicSource.

Emma Folts covers higher education for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.

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