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Pennsylvania advocates and health officials push for mandatory lead-level tests in children

“This is an issue of immediate importance.”

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Walking along the streets in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, A.J. Koury points to boarded-up houses and overgrowth. 

“This is one square mile in Pittsburgh’s East End. It’s an interesting kind of place because it was really booming in the 1930s and ’40s, and then there was a period of rapid decline in terms of population,” says Koury, a data analyst. “Now it’s really been a place of concentrated economic disadvantage and high unemployment.”

Koury, whose background is in developmental psychology, works in the data-evaluation arm of Homewood Children’s Village. His co-workers manage on-site teams in three Pittsburgh Public Schools where most kids of Homewood attend — Faison, Lincoln and Westinghouse.

“They’re great kids who are up against some really hard things, hard things that grownups would struggle with,” he says. 

HCV provides before- and after-school services, including meals as well as tutoring and mentoring; backpacks full of food for the weekend; and summer programs. It also partners with several organizations in Pittsburgh, as a convener of social services. 

“We have some of the lowest [standardized] test scores in Pittsburgh,” Koury says. And, that’s why next month, HCV will coordinate lead testing in Homewood homes. Lead exposure can lead to cognitive problems, including learning disabilities.

The organization will start by handing out water-testing kits to neighborhood residents, and it has partnered with a local company to process the results. HCV will be coordinating the testing on its own because testing children, and homes, is not mandatory in Pennsylvania. And while some state health and elected officials are pushing for tighter regulations, right now if a kid gets tested, it’s because a concerned parent, pediatrician or neighborhood group like HCV pushed the issue..

The next step “of what’s probably going to be a very long process,” Koury says, will be raising grant money to perform blood tests. But the effort is worth it if there’s a chance that lead exposure is contributing to the educational shortcomings of children in the community.

A snapshot of test scores at these predominantly African-American schools in the 2015 A+ Schools report reveals that third-graders at Faison achieved just 20 percent proficiency in reading. At the high school level, at Westinghouse, 11th-graders achieved 34 percent proficiency in literature and 17 percent proficiency in algebra.

“If it’s the case that kids aren’t doing their homework, we can address that,” Koury says. “If it’s the case that kids are being exposed to lead, all the tutoring in the world can’t help.”

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