This month, education watchdog A+ Schools announced that Executive Director Carey Harris would be leaving the organization to lead the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission, an early-childhood-education advocacy group. In an interview with Pittsburgh City Paper, Harris reflected on her time with A+ Schools, the state of Pittsburgh Public Schools and what the district should focus on in the future.
- Carey Harris
What area of education do you think A+ Schools has had the greatest impact on during your tenure?
Educational equity — I think the district is decidedly more equitable today than it was 12 years ago. Once we focused on the differences in opportunities and resources for kids, we were able to tackle some pretty important things in the district.
We called out early the issue that African-American kids did not have access to advanced courses. We recognized that in some high schools, students had no advanced courses, and those tended to be high schools that were predominantly African-American. We also noticed even in schools with advanced courses, African-American students were far less likely to be taking those courses. There was a deliberate intention to increase participation in those courses and I believe the participation of African-American kids in advanced-placement courses has doubled. PPS had to do all of that hard work, so I can’t take credit for that, but I think A+ really elevated that issue.
The other thing is during the [Gov. Tom] Corbett budget cuts, PPS lost $30 million, but we fought for equitable school budgets. We knew when we went into those cuts we already had 10 schools that didn’t have library, art or music; schools with high percentages of poor and minority kids. We came out of the cuts with every school having [those things]. Part of that was because [Superintendent Linda Lane] closed some schools, so she was able to redistribute resources that way. But we estimate that about 3,000 kids got access to art, music and libraries thanks to the equitable-school-budget work. We felt pretty proud of that.
Is there an area you wish you’d had time to address at A+ Schools?
There are two big issues that we’ve raised, but we haven’t seen as much progress as we would’ve like. One is around budgeting. This is sort of a high-spending district. So we’ve spent a lot of time trying to unpack why. While we’ve got some answers, one of the things we’ve found frustrating is the district doesn’t track all of the dollars it spends on kids at the school level. So while we can show you how much we spend on teacher salaries by school, we can’t tell you facilities’ costs by school. We can’t tell you nursing, ESL support, special education [or] transportation [costs]. It’s not tracked. You can’t really pull a picture together of total equity in spending within the district. So I think that’s one place where there’s a lot of work to do, and I think they could get really a lot smarter about spending.
The other piece is the [teacher] collective-bargaining agreement. I think there’s a lot of good stuff in that agreement. There are just some issues that we have been advocating for, for about four years, that we have not really seen change, specifically forced placement. They have situations where the teacher isn’t necessarily the school’s first choice, the school isn’t the teacher’s first choice, but that’s where the teacher goes. And that happens disproportionately in high-poverty schools. We want to make sure schools get the right teachers for the job, not just the one who’s available.
Last week, PPS named Anthony Hamlet the new superintendent. Do you have any advice for him?
I hope he will get out and meet parents and kids and remember that’s who his customers are. I think one of the takeaways I have after nearly 13 years in this job is there definitely needs to be system changes. I think the real work is intervention in schools. We know there are tons that can be done at the school level, without policy, that can make a big difference. We just do not have enough schools that are pursuing excellence. I would hope that he focuses on schools and what it is going to take to really move schools in the direction you want to see them. And what are the consequences if they’re not moving. That’s one thing Pittsburgh hasn’t figured out. We have a lot of interventions, but we haven’t figured out what to do when they don’t work. There’s no Plan B.
What is the greatest challenge facing Pittsburgh Public Schools right now?
School quality. We definitely have really high-quality schools in this district, but not enough of them. When we talk about the “two Pittsburghs” issue, schools are such an important part of that. The best way to have one Pittsburgh is to have great schools for everyone.