Following the damage done from the initial COVID-19 pandemic surge, A+ Schools is trying to turn operations around at Perry Traditional Academy. Only time will tell, though, if their efforts will be enough to balance out the harm that’s already taken place at the high school—not to mention the problems that existed there all along.
By Ashlee Green
Photo: Lauren Stauffer
Nichole Sims recalled the nightmare that was the 2019-2020 school year: On top of the, well, worldwide pandemic, Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) had a shortage of tech devices for remote learning, and on top of that, some PPS students’ families didn’t even have internet access. They might’ve found a laptop, for example, but Sims knows of some students who had to sit outside of coffee shops or go to the library to actually connect to WiFi and receive their instruction.
Sims, who is the Parent Lead for A+ Schools and works with schools throughout the Northside, called the whole situation a “fiasco.” In sum, she said the first pandemic year “really just amplified and increased all of the issues that already existed in education, specifically in Pittsburgh and in the Pittsburgh Public School District.
“[It] really illuminated the inequity in education, even locally,” she said.
There were other aspects too. The need for childcare, for example, was a big one: Parents often couldn’t go to work when their children were home, and students who were normally off at school were relied on, time and again, to look out for their younger siblings. Food insecurity became more obvious as well: Many students, Sims explained, counted on attending school for their meals.
“That stuff went away,” she said.
Furthermore, benefits from the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, originally developed as a short-term solution for food-insecure households last spring, have only recently begun to be distributed to families in need.
All of this led to students missing more days of school than normal, which in turn, played a part in them failing more courses. According to a report last year by the Regional Educational Laboratory of Mathematica (REL Mid-Atlantic) for the Pittsburgh Board of Education, “the percent of students who failed a course increased by 22 percentage points for those who were chronically absent in first semester 2020/21, compared to those who were chronically absent in first semester 2019/2020.”
High absentee rates have been an ongoing problem at Perry; that, along with high principal turnover, lower than statewide average graduation rates, and issues of segregation (white families send their children to private schools at more than double the rate that Black families from the same Northside neighborhoods do). They impact everybody, Sims noted: the students who are absent, the teachers who are trying to catch the absent ones up, and even the students who are in class every day.
Sims said because of the work she’s done through A+ with PPS—and especially with the organization’s focus on Perry—it was uncomfortable for her to see how successful other, non-PPS schools in the Northside, such as Propel Northside K-8 and Manchester Academic Charter School (MACS), were by comparison.
This school year at Perry, though, steps are being taken to try to turn things around.
“We have a variety of balls in the air: Some are landing, some we are still working on planning out,” said A+ Schools Executive Director James Fogarty.
PPS administration has implemented a block scheduling format, for example, which swaps out more traditional class period times with longer ones that meet less frequently during the week. The idea is that teachers will be able to spend more quality time working with students and answering their questions.
Mentoring for students is a priority now, too, and Perry alumni have been Zooming into classes as part of an “Alumni Speaker Series” to talk with students about the requirements and expectations of various career fields. Fogarty explained that the series allows students to “get introduced—get acquainted—and let the student desire or need create the follow-up.”
Perry has also partnered with Thrive18 to initiate outreach to student families and pinpoint the barriers to their childrens’ attendance; Thrive18 connects households with needed resources, such as utility assistance, food support, and job-readiness programs.
Fogarty said many Perry students take minimum-wage jobs to help support their families while they’re in school.
“How do we create space and resources for those students to be able to put off a $15 an hour job so they can go to school—so that in three years they’re able to earn substantially more…,” he said.
One way that’s in the works is offering students an opportunity to earn an associate degree at the same time that they get their high school diploma. Another way: creating “mini units” that give high schoolers practical experience in various career fields through local organizations. Those interested in nonprofit work, for example, could shadow City of Asylum; others who want to go into workforce development can see it in action at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild; and students could sample the field of private space exploration with help from Astrobotic and the Carnegie Science Center. Fogarty said he hopes to see the mini units in effect by Feb. 2022.
Already this year, the number of ninth graders entering Perry has exceeded the school’s expectations, but Sims said she’ll know the new approaches are really working when attendance rates and test scores go up.
She’s hopeful, too, about Dr. Wayne Walters’ recent appointment as PPS interim superintendent. Typically on social media, Sims said, people are “dragging PPS through the mud,” but so far, she’s only seen positive discourse about Walters.
PPS as a district is “failing a lot of students who aren’t getting the education that they deserve,” Sims said, and needs some “healing.” In the meantime, though, she’s continuing to work—and to root—for them.
“Going into the [Perry] building, I see the relationships that are being built between the teachers, the counselors, and the students,” Sims said. “There are a lot of great things that are happening… but most Northsiders don’t know that.”