I arrived at the Peterson Events Center on a snowy Saturday morning ahead of the Pittsburgh City League Basketball Championships. Despite my super fan status among certain college basketball circles, I somehow had not taken in a game at the Pete. The only time I was even in the building was when I caught a glimpse during my nephew’s college visit. I also hadn’t seen a live City League basketball game, even though I’ve called Pittsburgh my home for the past fifteen years. In the end though, I was simply grateful that School Board Member Terry Kennedy and I made it safely to the arena amidst the winter weather and that I wouldn’t have to worry about what to tell my wife about any new dings or scratches on her car that appeared on the way. Instead, I could focus on the game and gaining some insight into Pittsburgh Public Schools that had been biting me for a while.
Working as a consultant for families with children with mental health disorders, I spent a great deal of time in schools across Allegheny County. I met some good teachers in “bad districts” and some bad ones who taught for those perceived as top-notch suburban schools. I visited some schools I’d gladly send my own children and plenty where I wanted to douse myself in Purell immediately after exiting.
From my own personal experience, a number of people in mental health and in education in general avoid Pittsburgh Public like the plague. I wasn’t one of them and I actually got my foot in the door in a number of city schools. Maybe I set the bar low, but by and large, I came away more impressed than I expected, especially with their programs for children with special needs. On a whole, I thought my experiences there were representative of the rest of what I had seen around the county. There was some good and some bad, but not nearly to the level on the negative side as public sentiment would suggest. It naturally led to the question “Is Pittsburgh Public’s problem an issue of reality or branding?”
“I think the brand.” Kennedy didn’t hesitate, as if she’d also pondered the question for months. “I think if you talk to the students they have good experiences. I think people have a negative perception of Pittsburgh Public to no fault of the school district. What happens is what gets picked up by the news media most of the time are the negative stories. Of all the good stories, they’ll take a negative story.”
We took a little bit of time to schmooze before the game started, as one should at an event like this. Kennedy was hoping Mayor Bill Peduto might make an appearance, but with the weather outside, he could have easily been out plowing the streets himself. We did get some face time with Superintendent Linda Lane, who I had never met in person. She had a genuine excitement about her for the game and was notably tickled to have it at the Peterson Events Center, not to put another notch in her walking stick of accomplishments, but for the student-athletes who got a chance to play on the floor that only one week earlier hosted the legendary North Carolina Tar Heels.
The schedule consisted of an Obama – Allerdice double header where the two programs faced off for both city championships. Overlooking traditional etiquette, the boys played first met with the girls to follow. Kennedy and I took in the first half discussing how much she enjoyed following the Allderdice team. Her son Jamie attended high school there, while her daughter Sarah elected CAPA for dance. While she exercised caution not to expose her rooting interest, she seemed to gleefully watch the Dragons build a double digit half time lead. “You might be watching a future Duquesne Duke,” she suggested.
While I don’t know if the game featured Atlantic 10 talent, the junior laden and heavily favored Allderdice did have two players represented in the Pittsburgh Basketball Reports Top 10 WPIAL prospect for the class of 2016. The championship was a long way from the city league finals in their heyday during the 50’s and 60’s, but “Dice” likely had the most talented group since the DeJuan Blair-led State Champion Schenley teams of the mid 2000’s. Kenny Robinson was the best for Obama, whose players attend one of the district’s three East End regional magnates — Obama, University Prep and Sci-Tech. As Kennedy pointed out, CAPA students participate in the athletics program of their feeder school if the academic and arts demands allow the time.
At the half, we took some time to talk about the current state of affairs with the district. Kennedy served on the Mayor’s Education Task Force which recently completed a report providing five recommendations for city/district cooperation. I was most interested in point five, Marketing City’s Excellent Public School Options. Terry felt strongly that Pittsburgh schools had programs that even the top suburban districts simply cannot compete with. In the end, Pittsburgh Public is bigger than anyone else and it has the resources, both human and politically, to do more for students.
“There are a ton of different magnets.” she explained rattling off a number of them ranging from a robotics and engineering program to a K-8 public Montessori school to universal Pre-K. “Options” was a word she used frequently. “We have a breadth of activities for what our kids want to do and it really depends on the school. What a lot of principals do is if the kids want it and someone is willing to sponsor, it happens.” She also pointed out that the city’s special education program is so strong and comprehensive that other districts pay to have students attend.
The marketing has already started and it comes with help of philanthropic giving. So far, the district has been a participating sponsor of the Celebrate the Season parade that showcased student achievement from a number of city schools and WPXI will run programs dedicated to the district. “We have to pay to tell our story and thanks to a generous donation, we’re able to do that to a certain extent.”
The issue goes beyond what the district does, however. Ms. Kennedy pointed out those selling homes and, in essence, communities need a better education on the educational opportunities in the city to help buyers make an informed decision rather than simply steering them to neighboring communities. “[The real estate agents] need to be knowledgeable of what our schools have to offer. They need to say that ‘you should really look into the city schools’ rather than ‘you should just look at the suburbs.'” Reaching people with children is where to start and she feels it’s a shame professionals don’t give Pittsburgh Public a fair shake.
“One of the other recommendations in the [education task force] report was community schools where the schools aren’t just going to be for the students. We’re going to have doctors, dental, other services and community activities there.” They hope that bringing people to schools for other reasons than the school itself will provide the exposure that will help residents realize that the public schools are not what they’re cracked up to be, just like I did.
Since we were taking in a basketball game, I didn’t want to overlook the role sports could play to improve the district’s image. Colleges have used athletics to expand their brand, but Ms. Kennedy felt it goes beyond the scope of what the district can do, instead suggesting that varsity success starts with community organizations. “Some neighborhoods don’t have neighborhood athletics, so the kids aren’t in it. If the neighborhoods have strong programs, those students do well in high school and middle school. It’s partially the city and school district working together to strengthen the neighborhoods. We need to find space for everyone to succeed in athletics.”
Social media plays such a vital role in marketing today. I asked her to give me a 140 character phrase she would say to someone divided between Pittsburgh and the suburbs and she gave me an efficient 123. “Come. Visit our schools. Meet with our principals and meet with students and families to find out what they’re all about.”
The onslaught from the still young Allderdice team continued in the second as they won going away 78-58. The Obama girl’s team managed to send their faithful home happy winning the second game of the double header. I stepped out of the arena to find the streets clear and passable though the snow still fell and it got me thinking. If the current city government can make public works functional in less than a year, maybe they, the school board, and the superintendent can do the near-impossible and find a way a turn around Pittsburgh Public’s image by working together. Only time will tell, but based on the task force report, and my conversation with Kennedy, they understand the problem and they’re at least going to try.