Race and Equity

Segregation in Steel Valley: How these Pittsburgh-area elementary students are separated by race and academic performance

This story was produced by PublicSource, a Pittsburgh-area news outlet focused on in-depth and investigative reporting. PublicSource focuses on education, health, the environment, public safety and social justice issues. The Hechinger Report reprinted this story with permission.

The Steel Valley School District operates two elementary schools in a shoulder of the Monongahela River. One school enrolls mostly black students. The other, 2 miles away, is majority white.

When Terrance Frey learned that his son’s school, Barrett Elementary, is 78 percent black and Park Elementary is 84 percent white, he was shocked.

“It was kind of insulting. It was like reading one of those books on civil rights. You know, like you have to sit in the back of the bus,” said Frey, who is black.

Such segregation was not what he and his wife, Bianka Cable, expected when they purchased a home on 21st Avenue in Munhall three years ago. They sought out a racially diverse community and school district for their son, 8-year-old Terrance. Cable didn’t want him to have the same experience she had as one of a handful of black students attending her Ohio high school, but she didn’t expect the polar opposite either.

The Steel Valley School District has an overall enrollment that is 38 percent black, 6 percent multiracial and 54 percent white, but its elementary students specifically are divided along racial and socioeconomic lines.

So it seems a nearly 50-year-old district decision not to bus students between the Steel Valley boroughs of Homestead and Munhall — along with community differences — is trumping the spirit of the 63-year-old Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which deemed the separation of black and white students unconstitutional.

Related: How the federal government abandoned the Brown v. Board of Education decision

Even when you set aside the issue of constitutionality, the academic achievement gap between the two schools is alarming on its own.

Park Elementary students score 32 to 44 points higher than Barrett students on state exams in math, English and science. Similar gaps exist in reading proficiency, leaving Barrett third-graders behind the curve when they’re supposed to be transitioning from ‘learn to read’ into ‘read to learn.’

Decades of research show that integrating students results in better academic performance and that students of color educated in majority black schools perform worse than white students in majority white schools.

“We should really push for schools that are equitable for students of color,” said H. Richard Milner, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh. “Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because all of the good science that shows students in racially mixed schools do better.”

Steel Valley School District Superintendent Edward Wehrer, whose daughters attend Park Elementary, said he’s aware of the disparity between the elementary schools — a situation he inherited when he was named superintendent in June 2012.

“We believe the best way to educate the students is in the same facility,” Wehrer said. “I need to get these elementary kids learning together. I need a new school. There may be resistance, but I believe it is the right thing to do.”

Check PublicSource out: PublicSource is a Pittsburgh-area news outlet focused on in-depth and investigative reporting. We focus on education, health, the environment, public safety and social justice issues.

However, he says his hands are tied because the district cannot afford a new, centralized elementary school given that it is operating with a $2 million deficit and the state program used to provide partial reimbursement for school construction costs has been frozen for several years.

Last spring, Carnegie Mellon University students evaluated the potential of redeveloping a site adjacent to the Munhall Municipal Building, the newly refurbished West Field and the former Homestead Hospital. The study showed it would cost the school district $35 to $40 million to include a school at the site, according to Wehrer. And that price tag doesn’t include the cost of student transportation, which a centralized school would necessitate.

Community boundaries

Steel Valley is a walking district. Local officials see it as the reason Barrett is a majority black school and Park’s enrollment is overwhelmingly white.

“They got to walk to school. They can’t walk to Park. It’s too far,” said Homestead Mayor Betty Esper of the Barrett students.

Park Elementary is also at the top of a hill. Homestead and St. Mary Magdalene cemeteries sit below the school on the hill and is the landmark used to figure out which students attend Park or Barrett. If you live farther down the hill, below the cemeteries’ East 22nd Avenue border, you attend Barrett.

Park students mostly draw from Munhall households, while Barrett students primarily live in Homestead.

In Munhall, 2010 U.S. Census figures show a median household income of $47,756, compared with Homestead’s $25,859. The majority of residents in Munhall own their homes — that’s not the case in Homestead, where the majority of housing is renter-occupied. And about a quarter of Homestead’s population lives below the poverty level while the figure in Munhall is about 9 percent.

Underscoring it all is a vast racial difference between the two communities. A 2015 American Community Survey showed 88 percent of the 11,351 Munhall residents were white, while 70 percent of Homestead’s 3,144 residents were black. 

“I don’t think Munhall is stopping black people from moving in there,” Esper said. “They just can’t afford it.”

Steel Valley School Board President Colette Youngblood, who is black, said Homestead is a more transient area, which could affect how students perform academically. “Park is a place where the second generation lives in the family home,” said Youngblood, the only Homestead resident on the Steel Valley board.

Wehrer acknowledges the racial differences between the K-4 schools, but said the real division between the populations is socioeconomic.

At Barrett, 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.That figure is much lower — around 60 percent — at Park.

Still research shows that across the nation, as in Steel Valley, race and poverty are intertwined especially when it comes to minority students.

“It’s easier for us to make the case about socioeconomics, but this is clearly about socioeconomics and race,” said Tyrone Howard, a professor and associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Howard’s research focuses on race and culture in schools.

How it came to be in Steel Valley

The seed of segregation that exists between Park and Barrett today was planted in 1971 when the district was created by a state-ordered merger between the Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall school districts.

Daily Messenger newspaper archives at the Carnegie Library of Homestead explain that history.

In the early 1960s, Pennsylvania wanted to reduce its 2,189 districts to about 500. It wanted each district to have at least 4,000 students and required each county, except Philadelphia, to submit a reorganization plan of its school districts by July 1, 1964.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education approved Allegheny County’s plan to merge Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall school districts. The Munhall and West Homestead school districts tried to stop the merger, but were unsuccessful.

During that same time, news reports showed racial tensions in the Homestead district. Forty percent of the students were black, and they were demanding more black teachers, coaches and board members. When Munhall Superintendent Lawrence Griffin was named superintendent of the merged district, the demands landed on his desk.

According to a 1971 news story in the Daily Messenger, Griffin told a Homestead businessman’s group that the new district was looking for a black counselor and a black administrator. “We realize there is a black-white problem in the new merged district. We are not hiding the problem. We will face up to it.”

He also announced the new district had no plans to bus students “to correct racial imbalances” in the district’s schools.

And still, decades later, the current teaching and administrative staff in Steel Valley is mostly white. Wehrer did not respond when PublicSource asked about the number of black teachers in the district.

Acceptance v. change

UCLA’s Howard said the 1971 decision not to bus students to integrate the schools sounds like “a really orchestrated attempt to keep the district segregated.”

Several community members now seem to accept, or are resigned to, the realities that historical decisions, budgetary constraints, community demographics and inaction have created.

“This is the way it always was. You just accepted it,” said Barrett Parent-Teacher Association [PTA] President Maya Adams, who attended Barrett as a child and now has a daughter in third grade.

“I think it is whatever it is. As for my kids, they all came here. You just become OK with it,” said Michele Briston, PTA vice president at Barrett, who has a son in third grade and a 17-year-old son and 22-year-old daughter who also attended Barrett.

Recently released School Performance Profiles [SPP] issued by the state Department of Education score Park 81.5 and Barrett at 57.3. The scores, which can range from zero to 107, are based on such factors as test scores, attendance and the school’s progress in closing achievement gaps. The state considers 70 to be a passing score. Steel Valley school officials point to the fact that Barrett students’ proficiency rates on state tests and their SPP increased in 2016-17. But Park gained similar ground in both measures, leaving the disparities stagnant.

Prior to the reporting of this article, Briston said she was never told about the difference in academic performance between the schools. “I have no regrets, but it’s kind of sad to me,” Briston said.

Like Cable and Frey, Briston said she moved her family to Munhall hoping to raise her children, who are multiracial, in a diverse community.

Youngblood said she has questioned why the schools are separated by race and why there are not more black teachers in the district. She asked even though school directors have said no one from Homestead complains to the school board about the racial differences or academic performance at Barrett.

“I asked two years ago who came up with the separation. They told me it’s because the way the streets are,” Youngblood said. “The parents just accepted it.”

Cable is not in the camp of acceptance.

“I like Barrett. I like the teachers. They’ve been very nice. But it’s not OK to have a segregated school in Pennsylvania… Just because it’s the way it’s always been doesn’t mean that it’s the right way,” Cable said.

The mother said she believes Park and Barrett should mix up their student populations to correct racial imbalances and that transportation costs wouldn’t be so excessive as to warrant an excuse.

Youngblood said she has raised the idea of placing the lower elementary grades at one school and the upper elementary grades at the other. But the idea died because she was told Park School “is not in very good shape.”

Wehrer said that Park, which is more than 100 years old, has “aspects … that make it particularly hard for those with disabilities.” Yet, there are currently students with disabilities attending Park.

Wehrer said he believes there would be opposition by both Homestead and Munhall residents to merging the students in the current schools. Youngblood thinks more of the opposition would come from Munhall. “We are all one community, but people don’t see it that way,” she said.

‘Building relationships’

The effects of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling seem to be wearing off. Once a force that mandated communities to integrate schools even if it meant busing students to different neighborhoods, it is now challenged by suburban sprawl and segregation in housing.

White and affluent families have moved to communities far from minority populations, which has resulted in the resegregation of schools, said Howard of UCLA.

Studies conducted in New York state and the Washington, D.C., area show a trend of resegregation and how students left behind in minority schools consistently perform lower academically than their white counterparts in majority white schools.

The February 2016 report, “A New Wave of School Integration,” published by The Century Foundation, incorporated findings that spanned five decades, showing that students perform better academically in schools that are racially and socioeconomically integrated.

The report also cited research that showed students who are educated in racially diverse schools have better critical thinking skills, reduced prejudice and are more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods.

Milner of the Center for Urban Education said he thinks attendance boundaries, like the cemetery line in Steel Valley, should be reconsidered.

“It’s good science to rethink student assignment policies,” Milner said.

The results could resonate for generations. “You get students who better understand how to

work together in the classroom and in society,” Milner said. “It’s not just about school. It’s about participating in sports. It’s about who gets invited to whose house. It’s about building relationships.”

This story was fact-checked by Jeffrey Benzing.

Reach Mary Niederberger at 412-515-0064 or at mary@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter at @MaryNied.

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