A+ Schools released its 18th annual Report to the Community this week, in which the education advocacy group details disparities in funding, test scores and chronic absenteeism among Pittsburgh’s public schools.
In the 2022-2023 school year, 34% of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ 18,665 K-12 students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10% or more of the days they were enrolled for either unexcused or excused reasons.
Attendance rates at Pittsburgh charter schools were not much better: nearly a quarter of students enrolled in charters missed at least 10% of school days, and 7% of students missed 20% of days or more.
Research shows chronic absence is a leading indicator of whether a student is likely to drop out and read proficiently by third grade.
The recent data A+ Schools compiled demonstrates a negative trend between the percentage of students chronically absent in a school and state test scores.
“We know that there are fundamentally multiple factors that lead to that,” executive director James Fogarty said. “And so what we’re trying to do is take the blame off of parents, take the blame off of schools, and really start to say, ‘How do we solve these problems that are keeping kids from getting to school every day?’”
Through interviews with Pittsburgh students and families, A+ Schools found that a lack of reliable transportation, chronic health issues and school safety concerns are the main causes of chronic absenteeism.
Students become more likely to miss school as they get older, according to the report. More than half of PPS high school students were considered chronically absent last school year, including 76% of students at Westinghouse Academy.
While elementary schools in the district tend to have far lower rates of chronic absence, some last school year reached into the high forties and low fifties.
District schools with a higher concentration of economically disadvantaged students were also more likely to have higher absence rates. Fogarty said that disparity is most pronounced at the high school level.
Many of the district’s economically disadvantaged students are concentrated in neighborhood schools that offer fewer AP courses, fewer resources and are more likely to be staffed by inexperienced teachers.
More affluent students, meanwhile, often attend magnet schools with greater resources.
“That divergence really creates problems for schools, for families.”
Just 40% of Pittsburgh students attend their assigned neighborhood school
To Fogarty, the biggest issue perpetuating these inequities is the district’s school configuration, which he said was set up to meet neighborhood needs — though that’s not necessarily aligned with where Pittsburgh students are enrolling.
While 9,124 students attended their assigned neighborhood school during the 2022-23 school year, another 14,095 students enrolled in a school outside of their neighborhood, whether that be a magnet school or charter.
“To me, what we have to start thinking about is, in a city that’s highly segregated — where there’s tons of red lines based on historic investment and underinvestment in neighborhoods — how do we break those down so that we have diverse-by-design schools?” he continued.
District schools with higher rates of socioeconomic integration tend to perform better. Fogarty said that improving outcomes for children requires a different path forward — one in which resources are equitably allocated across the district to get kids what they need to thrive.
“That is going to require actually putting more kids under a smaller number of roofs,” Fogarty said. “There’s just no way around it.”
Enrollment at PPS is down 17%, and as enrollments decline, the cost per pupil to operate smaller schools — those with 200 or fewer students — has ballooned to $30,352. Per-student budgets in the district can vary by thousands of dollars.
The district has closed 38 schools across the city since 2004, with many located in predominantly Black communities. Closure discussions tabled in 2021 targeted six district schools. At the time, 60% of students enrolled in those schools were Black.
“What we need to do is make a promise that we’re going to invest our highest resources into communities that have been under-resourced and then use that as a magnet for families across boundaries to come together,” Fogarty said.
PPS superintendent Wayne Walters was among A+ Schools’ partners in producing the report. During Monday’s presentation of the report, Walters said the district looks to strategically allocate resources to ensure “equity, excellence and efficiency.”
Walters will give an update on the district’s five-year strategic plan during Wednesday’s education committee meeting.