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Segregation in Pittsburgh-area schools an enduring issue

| Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, 10:40 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Students take part in a ninth-grade information literacy class on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, in City Charter High School in downtown Pittsburgh.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
A student raises their hand on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, in a ninth-grade information literacy class at City Charter High School in downtown Pittsburgh.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
English teacher Cliff Luft co-teaches a cultural literacy class for ninth-graders on Tuesday Feb. 2, 2016, in City Charter High School in downtown Pittsburgh.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
History teacher Mark Barga helps Amelia Smith-Tine with a problem during a cultural literacy class Tuesday Feb. 2, 2016, in the City Charter High School in downtown Pittsburgh.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Ninth-grader Charles Johnson listens to a poem about social media during a cultural literacy class Tuesday Feb. 2, 2016, in City Charter High School in downtown Pittsburgh.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
History teacher Mark Barga helps Todd Best with a problem during a cultural literacy class for ninth-graders Tuesday Feb. 2, 2016in City Charter High School in downtown Pittsburgh.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Amelia Smith-Tine takes notes during a cultural literacy class for ninth-graders Tuesday Feb. 2, 2016, in City Charter High School in downtown Pittsburgh.

He didn't think much about it then, but Wyatt Schueler rarely saw a person who was not white during the eight years he attended Catholic school in Pittsburgh's North Hills.

He reluctantly entered the public school system in ninth grade because his parents could not afford Central Catholic High's $10,000 annual price tag — probably not for him, and definitely not for him and three younger brothers.

Initially, Schueler, who is white, found the diverse student makeup of City Charter High School in downtown Pittsburgh to be striking and a bit intimidating. Nearly four years later, just a few months from graduation, the varied blend of races and backgrounds is one of the 17-year-old's favorite things about his school.

“You have to deal with diversity, because in the real world you don't get to choose who you work with,” he said. “Here, they teach you how to work together in a group, in pairs, how to overcome differences and adapt to people from every neighborhood in the city.”

City Charter is a relatively racially integrated school; slightly less than half of the roughly 600 students in 2013-14 were black, 41 percent were white and 4 percent were Hispanic or Asian, state data show.

That's not the case across most of Western Pennsylvania.

“Black students make up far more than their share of population in urban schools,” said Jake Haulk, analyst with the Allegheny Institute of Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Castle Shannon. “A lot of white students obviously are not going to public schools, and a lot of parents with school-aged kids moved out of the city.”

America's school systems are more diverse than ever — buoyed by growth among Hispanics in recent decades — but data show they are more segregated than at any time since Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision intended to eradicate segregation in public schools.

Persisting disparities

More than six decades after the landmark ruling, schools in the Northeast are some of the most segregated in the nation and schools in the South are among the most integrated, Department of Education and private research show. The disparity is evident in Greater Pittsburgh, as the city's public schools become predominantly black and schools in the suburbs remain or become increasingly white.

“We are still separating blacks and whites and treating them differently, and people like me are trying to find a new way to address the old problem,” said Esther Bush, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, part of a national group that works to help people raise their standards of living. “I am very concerned that some schools still carry labels — ‘Allderdice is the white high school. Westinghouse is the black high school.'

“These descriptors of schools continue to be a problem for where America is and for where America needs to be in order to be competitive in the world.”

At the academically struggling Westinghouse Academy in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood, more than 97 percent of students were black in 2013-14; just three of 453 students were white.

About 20 miles to the north at Burrell High School, only 11 of 563 students were black in 2013-14; fewer were Hispanic or multiracial.

“We do have issues, because those kids are in the minority and it's just not fair,” said Burrell School District Superintendent Shannon Wagner. “I would welcome the diversity, because the research shows that it's good for kids to be exposed to everyone.”

The so-called “re-segregation” trend is fueling concerns among educators and education advocates about subtle forms of the “separate and unequal” treatment that Brown v. Board of Education aimed to correct. Schools with predominantly black students tend to have lower rates of achievement, graduation and post-secondary education, and higher rates of teacher turnover, absenteeism and discipline problems. Pittsburgh's black students get suspended at four times the rate of white students, data show.

Meanwhile, decades of research suggest all students benefit socially and academically from exposure to people of different races.

“Both sides lose out when they don't get a chance to know the other,” Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane said.

Dual segregation

Fifty-three percent of Pittsburgh Public Schools students are black, but blacks make up just 26.5 percent of the population of Pittsburgh and Mt. Oliver, the two municipalities within district boundaries.

The achievement gap between blacks and whites mirrors the rest of Pennsylvania; on state tests, black students lag more than 30 percentage points behind whites in reaching proficiency in reading, literature and math. Seven in 10 white high schoolers score proficient or better on the Keystone algebra exam, for example, compared with less than four in 10 black students.

“I won't even pretend that I have a solution to this,” Lane said. “It's a complicated issue, maybe more so than we realized when Brown (v. Board of Education) was passed, frankly.”

Nearly 90 percent of low-income students in Pittsburgh's public system attend “intensely segregated” schools, up from 77 percent in 1999, found a 2015 report by The Civil Rights Project at University of California, Los Angeles. The typical white student attends a school where 28.6 percent of students come from low-income households; the typical black student attends a school where nearly 63 percent are low-income.

“You see the dual segregation of minorities and low-income schools,” said Stephen Kotok, lead researcher on the UCLA report and a University of Pennsylvania education professor. “That is a big issue, and that kind of maps back to housing segregation — something that is somewhat out of scope of just schools.”

Western Pennsylvania is among the most segregated in the nation in terms of where blacks and whites live, and blacks here fare far worse than whites on a slew of quality-of-life metrics, from employment to home ownership to educational attainment, studies show. About a third of blacks in the Pittsburgh metro area live in poverty, compared with 15 percent of whites, census data show.

“I do believe that African-American children can receive a strong education in a school that is primarily African-American,” Lane said. “Poverty makes that more difficult, there's no question, and unfortunately, in our community especially, there's a strong correlation between race and poverty.”

From 1982 through the early 1990s, Pittsburgh Public Schools spent $280 million on “forced busing” spurred by court-ordered mandates to integrate schools.

“What it suggested was your communities aren't worth a damn, and the only way that you can get quality education is to bus you into a white community,” said Mark Brentley, a 16-year Pittsburgh Public Schools board member who lived through forced busing. He recalled multiple times when, as a teen, his bus of black students arrived at Perry High School and white students were waiting across the street to pelt them with bottles and bricks.

Critics have said “forced busing” increased racial tensions and hostility and didn't do much to improve educational outcomes for blacks. Conservative groups such as The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon derided the approach as “a Pittsburgh and a national failure.”

“I feel in my heart that we gave it the good ol' all-American try,” said Evelyn Neiser, 76, who was a Pittsburgh school board member during those decades and recalls angry protests and parent backlash to the mandate. “We tried to make it work.”

Integrating isn't enough

As court orders expired, Pittsburgh Public Schools placed a greater emphasis on magnet schools, institutions with a particular focus such as the arts or sciences, whose enrollment is open to students district-wide.

In 1995, the district reorganized around neighborhood schools, as did many districts nationwide, Kotok said.

“They basically just gave up on the desegregation part, because of the demographic landscape, and said, ‘We need to make high-quality schools for everyone,' ” Kotok said. “That was about 25 years ago. While we've seen pockets of successes, it's not the norm.”

Integrating a school isn't enough to change consequences, noted Rachel Amankulor, deputy director of policy for PennCAN, an advocacy group that supports school choice.

“Simply attending a racially diverse school in no way guarantees greater opportunities or better outcomes for black students,” she said. “We have examples in this city of integrated schools that are failing their black students.”

Shorting all students

Pittsburgh's school segregation problem is not merely a byproduct of neighborhood makeups; in elementary schools across the city, the average capture rate barely tops 25 percent, meaning a majority of students living nearby go to schools elsewhere.

With its mostly white population, Lower Burrell schools have not had major issues related to racial tensions, Wagner said, but the school's nearly monoracial makeup makes it more challenging to teach students about tolerance and racial disparity. It also shorts white students who will need to learn to interact with people of different backgrounds to succeed in college and the workforce, she said.

“You walk Downtown just one block and you see diversity everywhere — all kinds of different people — and unfortunately, here in Lower Burrell that's just not what it is,” Wagner said.

“We are isolated, and if kids never leave the city of Lower Burrell, they do not see what they really should see. It's kind of sad, actually.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or

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