Black Women for a Better Education on their Goals, Achievements, and Purpose

Exacerbated by the pandemic, Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) has both faced and created issues pertaining to equity, transportation, finance, and virtual learning. As a result of this, the underperformance of minority students in schools has come to a head since the emergence of Covid-19.

Instrumental to the amplification of equitable public education is Black Women for a Better Education (BW4BE), a coalition of Black women leaders, parents, teachers, former employees (of PPS), and community members in Pittsburgh. Started as a coalition with a shared leadership model during the pandemic, the group observed the district’s incompetence and felt compelled to act. Their focus is educating and advocating for the better education of children, especially Black children in PPS. They heighten the public’s awareness of public education, publish issue papers, host institutes for educational leaders, and have a Political Action Committee (PAC), among other work. 

“There is so much gray [area] when it comes to young children and their lives… We operate in the gray,” emphasized LaTrenda Sherrill, a leader in BW4BE.

Among other work, BW4BE recently ran a slate of PPS school board candidates through their PAC. The organization pooled funds and made donations to a designated slate of candidates. Criteria for this slate were “those who center the education of black children and include it in their platform.” 

One of the five candidates on this slate was Dr. Tracey Reed. She ran for and won the District 5 School Board position after feeling ignored by the board (following writing a letter and engaging in other public outreach efforts). When Black women leaders (including Reed) could not find anyone in the district interested in filling the position, she ultimately decided to run. She emphasizes that the importance of electing officials who will really listen is what led to the creation of the BW4BE PAC and slate for new school board members. 

Reed says, “Recognizing this is a democracy, when elected officials do not listen to you, you elect new officials.”  

In 2018, there was a 43.9% gap between black and white students in the average proficiency rates in Keystone scores in PPS. An average of 30.83% of Black students scored proficient compared to an average of 74.73% of white students.  

Both Reed and Sherrill emphasized that the greater issue is Black students lacking the opportunity for success. Reed explains that she grew up on a Pittsburgh block (in Beltzhoover) full of Black families. While not all of the parents on her block completed postsecondary education, at least one child from every family went to college. She explained that she does not see this pattern today: “I think it’s a… combination of the way that white supremacy works… when tides begin to change and people begin to acquire whatever sort of credentials or degrees that should take them out of poverty, then the rules change… I also know that our economy has changed so significantly that acquiring a job that pays a middle-class salary is increasingly harder, and is especially harder for people who live in poverty. There are fewer opportunities. That phenomenon trickles down to schools.”

Black Women for a Better Education was instrumental in highlighting the necessity for the resignation of Dr. Hamlet from the superintendent position and, in doing so, highlighting the school board’s lack of accountability. On June 1, 2020, the coalition sent a joint letter to the board outlining the “abject failure” of Dr. Hamlet’s tenure. In concluding the letter, the group writes, “We are aware of the optics, however, we demand better for our Black children. We have had enough and our children deserve better.” 

Dr. Hamlet announced his resignation on September 8, 2021, amid a state ethics investigation. Following this, Dr. Wayne Walters was selected to be the Interim Superintendent. 

Sherrill approached Dr. Walters’ arrival with optimism, saying, “I don’t think there is a strategic vision for what we want our district to be. I say all that to say, I love Dr. Walters. I think Dr. Walters gets it… The parents feel like they are being heard… I believe in him, I believe he can make change, I believe also that he has the ability to make harder decisions, to recommend harder decisions to the board because he is willing to do it. ” 

Reed offered, “Just knowing Dr. Walters, he is very focused on student outcomes and he is very focused on student achievement… he understands that ultimately kids need to have the social, academic, and intellectual ability to do hard things if they are going to succeed. I think having an interim superintendent is surprisingly useful, in lots of ways he will be able to do bolder things.”

Although the focus has been on the superintendent position, Sherrill is concerned that this continues to distract from what they view to be the main problem: the school board. She explained, “[Hamlet] is a symptom of a board that is not willing to make the hard decisions when it comes to governing this district.” Sherrill emphasizes that the actions of the superintendent have never been the core problem, rather she argues that the board was incompetent in evaluating and providing essential oversight to the superintendent position. 

Reed explained, “What’s clear is that there are lots of members of the school board who are focused on equity who care about a more equitable school district, and it feels like the work of the board is so… immediate. The way that issues are considered does not feel like long-term planning… You almost have to do something other than the normal work of the school board to have an impact on equity.” 

Sherrill referenced ideas that Reed has brought to the table about the impact of education. “[Tracey] talks about education as liberation and as a means to liberation. When you have that, I really feel like you become freer, freer to explore, freer to choose what is right for you without knowing… Right now, our students are not receiving a quality education… We are not realizing the genius of our kids.”

BW4BE strongly encourages students to join the fight. Sherrill says, “I would encourage any young person who cares about their own education, their sibling’s education, who believes that education is a right and should be a right, to get involved. Become a member of Black Women for a Better Education.”