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This new report details the educational barriers Black students face in Greater Pittsburgh

  • Community Impact
  • Innovation and Research
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • School of Social Work

A new report from  the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP) is shedding light on educational barriers plaguing Black students and families in Pittsburgh and nationwide.

On Oct. 19, representatives from CRSP presented findings from “Strength for the Journeys: Lessons from African American Families on Academic Programming and Educational Involvement in Greater Pittsburgh,” a report the center has been working on since 2018. The Heinz Endowments-supported project offered a more in-depth look at the disparities outlined in previous CRSP studies and explored how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated issues such as mental health challenges among students and parents alike. 

“We are calling attention to the collective issues that Black families face and the assets that have been supportive to them [and] are important for recommendations in the space of educational practice,” said James Huguley, associate dean and associate professor in the School of Social Work and the lead researcher on the project. “In this report, we see the day-to-day consequences of racialized economic and education oppression lived out.”  

The Pittsburgh College Access Alliance (PCAA) — a coalition of community organizations formed to address educational inequities by fostering educational access, opportunities and a network of support within Black communities — approached Huguley to develop the report. The founding members include the Crossroads Foundation, the Fund for the Advancement of Minorities through Education, Higher Achievement, the Negro Education Emergency Drive and The Neighborhood Academy (TNA). 

[Pitt’s Just Discipline Project expanded to more schools this fall.]

Although each organization had been successful in their respective missions before, including offering scholarships and college preparatory education, the consensus was that they could accomplish more together. To do so — and to better understand the needs of the families PCAA aims to help — the group engaged CRSP to initiate a listening tour with students, parents and alumni from each organization.

“When we attempted to study similar [collaborative] models within the nation, we quickly learned that no other organization was doing this work,” said Anthony Williams, TNA’s head of school.

The focus group sessions revealed that the barriers preventing Black families from obtaining quality education fall into three main categories: school and institutional, race and society, and financial. Structural issues included overcrowding, lack of funding, low expectations, peer distractions, teacher burnout and a lack of rigor. 

While attending private school largely curtailed these challenges, many families faced economic barriers that made this an unattainable option. And those who could afford private school found that new issues replaced old ones; CRSP’s study noted that kids instead encountered racism, classism and racialized social isolation, among other negative experiences.

“The parents were loud and clear around the need for diversity in training, representation and curriculum to offset the racial isolation and discriminatory experiences they were having,” said Huguley. “These experiences lend support to what other parents have experienced and voiced in public and private settings in our region in the past year and a half.”

Families contributing to the project recommended a number of solutions to boost achievement and challenge oppressive systems, including more equitable distribution of educational resources, better training for educators, establishing Black parent support networks and much more.

“This work adds important validation and voice to the authentic struggles and strengths of real people that are behind every statistic that we see in striking publications like the Gender Equity Report or the Just Discipline school suspensions report,” said Huguley.

The report is just the first step in a broader CRSP plan to transform educational attainment in the region. The next phase will see the center partner with the Center for Urban Education on a project that will delve deeper into Black families’ pandemic experiences in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood.

For those interested in participating in the next community conversation about the research, a forum and dinner will be held at 5 p.m. on Nov. 1 at The Neighborhood Academy, 709 N. Aiken Ave.


— Kara Henderson