Sunday, June 29, 2008

A city at risk

In a nice little column Sunday about Pittsburgh's Little Italy, Joseph Mistick declares, "With gas prices through the roof, the time for a return to the great American urban neighborhood may be here."

I certainly hope Miskick is correct. I've written (ranted) ad nauseum on this blog in favor of urban living and policies that promote walkable, sustainable communities. But there's a major obstacle standing in the way of this great urban renaissance, and the events of the past week in Pittsburgh have brought it into relief. Simply put, Pittsburgh -- and other cities which share its woes -- will continue to struggle with population loss and the resulting economic stagnation so long as it has what is perceived to be a failing school system.

That's certainly not an original observation on my part. The link between a community's livability and the quality of its public schools is quite well-established. Schools are a big part of the reason that people move to places like Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair and Fox Chapel.

But absent from the public discourse about Pittsburgh's future is much evidence that people understand that the fate of the city and the fate of the school district are inextricably linked. The school district's troubles may have once been a symptom of Pittsburgh's economic decline. Now, cause and effect are reversing themselves, and the school district is dragging the city down with it. (That is not a comment on the two entities' respective governing bodies. In truth, the school district has been better managed than the city over the past two decades.)

If the numbers aren't enough to convince you, try talking to suburban parents. My wife belongs to a moms' group, and when another member finds out we live in the city, her first question to my wife is, "What are you going to do when it's time for your daughter to go to school?" As far as they are concerned, the city schools aren't even an option.

I don't know what the solution is. The first step is to acknowledge that this a crisis in the life of the city that must be dealt with, and soon. A lot of the people who got involved in the fight over Schenley High School understand this, and regardless of how you feel about the decision to close the school, it does provide what educators call a teachable moment. We have the opportunitiy to push the school system to the top of the public agenda. The energy that was expended to fight for this one school must be turned toward saving the entire system -- which means that some of the people who hurled insults at one another are going to have to work together from here on out.

We owe it to our children. And to our city.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous JS said...

Perhaps is about time that people start changing their perception about the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS).

We moved to the city of Pittsburgh from the Bay Area a few years ago (my husband took a faculty position at Carnegie Mellon University). Many people around Pittsburgh were very discouraging about the PPS, telling us to move to the suburbs, but the suburbs make me DEPRESSED…

Our daughter attends Liberty K-5, PPS, she is so happy there. We are extremely happy with the school. We have not been disappointed. We have high expectations of our kids and the schools. We know many parents (also faculty of local universities) that send their kids to Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) and are very happy to do so.

What I like the Liberty K-5 and Pittsburgh Public Schools:

parents are highly involved
the gifted program is GREAT
Liberty's afterschool program is EXCELLENT
school environment is POSITIVE, promotes learning and COMMUNITY
MUSIC and ARTS are great
EXCELLENT Teachers

My daughter loves MATH, loves to READ and comes home HAPPY every day.

Hope this helps,
JS

2:50 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's interesting is that... many cities don;t have an "urban school" problem at all. That is, if you control for demographics, many urban schols are quite satisfactory. What we have instead is quite often a "class" problem. In other words, poor kids do poorly in school. Cities are full of poor people. So test scores for city scores are low. Students from middle and upper class families seem to do fine in urban schools.

Here's a link:

http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/06/the_truth_about_urban_schools.php

I suppose this is reason for optimism in some sense: For city dwellers like me, there is a good chance my kids can get a decent education at a city school.

On the other hand... Let's say we magically come up with the will and the money to make city schools the same in every way as the schools in Mt. Lebanon.

Guess what? A lot of those kids still won't learn anything.

The social, economic and family problems are too intertwined and too malignant to be overcome in a lot of cases. So... what? Stop trying? No. We can't stop trying. But it certainly gives pause when there are calls to "fix" things. A whole bunch of money and a whole buch of smart people and whole bunch of great ideas and whole lot of momentum would certainly help. But probably only on the margins.

And probably never enough to precipitate a reverse stampede, bringing all the good folks from Mt. Lebo back into the city.m (Or even a substantial minorit of them.)

Sam M

3:49 PM

 
Blogger EdHeath said...

The way I have always heard it described is that you play the "neighborhood" game with city schools. If you want a good education for your kids, you move to Squirrel Hill to get your kids into Allderdice. Magnet schools play some havoc with this game, but I think you can still exert some influence based on where you live (I wonder if gas and diesel prices will end or at least limit the magnet school program). I think it is no accident that Allderdice is one of the better city schools since so many academics choose to live in Squirrel Hill.

Otherwise I agree pretty much with Sam. Which is why I have taken to saying that we need to do two things simultaneously, find a way to make decent jobs offering a living type wage available in the inner city and spend more on schools (perhaps with the new tax base). That would give the kids a better home situation as well as a chance to improve their future and give the parents a reason to make their neighborhood better. I don't know about you, but I would rather have a problem of needing a factory or call center to locate in Wilkensburg than to have a problem of how to fix the city schools without any new money.

5:34 AM

 

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