Building Bridges To Success

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Perhaps the biggest challenge to the success of a Promise-type program is data. Before Promise programs are established, there is typically little information to be found for future comparison. But once a program has begun, no matter how complete its systems, it takes years to have enough measurable information to be conclusive. It then takes additional time to react and implement plans to address the issues.

So it was disheartening to see the Pittsburgh Courier recently take a break from its typical entertainment fare to publish the screaming headline “Is The Pittsburgh Promise Failing In Its Promise To Blacks?”

The story came just days after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featured the efforts of ‘We Promise,’ a $200,000 Heinz Endowment program designed to assist black males in the school district to focus on confidence, motivation and time management. That initiative — established in 2013 — stated that boosting the number of black males eligible for Pittsburgh Promise was its primary goal.

Additionally — late last June — the Pittsburgh Promise partnered with the Community College of Allegheny County to provide post-secondary funds in certain career and technical fields while students are still in high school. Next fall the offerings will expand into energy, advanced manufacturing and welding and computer technology.

The Courier’s sensationalized headline and the extensive quoting of Joseph J. Kennedy, IV, didn’t match the facts.

“Two thirds of the kids in the district are at least as African American as President Obama, but two-thirds of the money goes to White students,” said Kennedy, the founder and CEO of Riverbends, Inc., a nonprofit, independent and online organization which promotes African-American genealogy and history.

The district website shows that 53 percent of the students in the public schools are African-American. And Pittsburgh Promise Executive Director Saleem Ghubril reports that 48 percent of the Promise funds — $23 million — that have been disbursed have gone to black students. Even in pointing out the inaccuracy of Kennedy’s claims, Ghubril did concede that Pittsburgh Promise’s distribution of funds is “not where we want it to be yet.” This is not just a Pittsburgh problem, it is a national crisis. It isn’t something that can be remedied by a Promise program or a district or a genealogy researcher. It is something that requires the collective will of an army of people.

Pittsburgh is using data-driven analysis to implement programming to addresses its needs. From its outset, the initiative was focused on raising funds — nearly $200 million to date — to support an enormous number of students. Like most programs do, Pittsburgh had to make some adjustments, including the creation of academic supports and additional student options.

Raising large philanthropic gifts has opened the Pittsburgh Promise to a variety of criticisms, notably from others wishing for a larger slice of the non-profit pie. But no such place-based program is immune to attack. Remarkably, there has even been public criticism of programs from other programs in recent years.

But the measure of the Promise cannot be fully understood in just five or 10 years. Given time to grow, evolve and mature, cities will find what works specifically for them. When they do, cities will change and schools will transform. And that will even happen sooner than later when met with constructive and collaborative support.

UPDATE: Pittsburgh Promise board chair Franco Harris has penned a response to the original piece in the Courier.

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