Pittsburgh public schools steamroll humanities, arts

Credit: India Price/Online Editor Credit: India Price/Online Editor

On Oct. 21, Pittsburgh public schools officials released a report that included official K–12 enrollment information for public schools in the Pittsburgh area. The report showed that overall Pittsburgh public school enrollment, as of Oct. 1, has fallen by 353 students in 2016, a 1.49 percent drop in enrollment. The losses came from all three divisions of K–12 education — 242 in K–5, 122 in middle school, and 37 in high school.

The report also explains that this dip in enrollment is not an isolated problem. Pittsburgh’s low 2016 public school enrollment fits into a general trend in Pittsburgh’s public education. Over the last five years overall enrollment has steadily dropped each year, falling 6.97 percent decrease in total.

Despite these overall decreases, however, the report also showed several individual schools with significant enrollment increases. Pittsburgh Schiller (6–8) gained 19 students, and Pittsburgh Lincoln’s total enrollment (K–5) increased from 217 to 227. Pittsburgh Woolslair (PreK–5) showed particularly significant increases. In 2013, Woolslair was the smallest school in the district, not including special/online programs, with only 110 students. Since then, however, Woolslair’s enrollment has increased 74.5 percent, putting Woolslair’s enrollment above other previously larger programs, such as Pittsburgh Manchester (K–8) and Pittsburgh Weil (K–5).

These increases could be attributed to several factors, but many have linked these successes with the integration of STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics — programs. After initial plans to close Woolslair due to poor enrollment, the school board voted in September of 2014 to turn the school into a partial STEAM magnet school, with STEAM curricula taking effect during the 2015–2016 school year. Nearly $900,000 was granted to the project, which also involved the implementation of STEAM programs at Schiller and Lincoln and an eventual extension to Perry High School the following year. The plan involved hiring two STEAM instructors for the four schools and developing a STEAM curriculum for each school.

Shaun Tomaszewski, the district’s STEAM coordinator, explained that the grant money was used “to renovate existing physical spaces, to provide faculty with professional development and to purchase instructional materials they might need to implement the curriculum.”

The STEAM curriculum, an extension on the traditional STEM curriculum, is centered around project-based learning, with students completing extended modules in newly-installed STEAM labs. “Our current vision for STEAM education is to provide experiences where kids will eventually not just participate in the economy as consumers of things, but have the capacity to really be makers of things,” Tomaszewski said. “We’re … committed to spreading this innovation to all of our buildings so these STEAM mini-grants will be available for individual teachers or principals so that they can develop STEAM activities and learning experiences for kids in their own spaces.”

The implementation of STEAM curricula in these schools follows previous implementation of STEM programs in both public and private schools throughout Pittsburgh.

Schools such as the Summer Gaming Academy have already benefitted from the integration of STEM principles. In 2011, a $10,000 grant from the Grable Foundation was awarded to the Summer Gaming Academy to upgrade the school’s computer lab and develop an Entertainment Technology Center. Similar to Woolslair, the Summer Gaming Academy, which initially started at approximately 30 students, had a projected enrollment of 170 students the following year due to the implementation of new technology. Other developments within the Elizabeth Forward School District also exhibit the growth of STEM education, including the development of the YOUMedia center, which lets students interact with digital media, and the SMALLab (Simulated Media Arts Learning), which incorporates motion-capture cameras and wireless controllers to let students play games with images projected onto surfaces throughout the lab.

This increased presence of STEM-type programs represents a general shift away from liberal arts education, which teaches students general skills including critical thinking as well as written and oral communication skills. While the integration of STEM and STEAM programs have undoubtedly brought many benefits to a variety of struggling schools, it is important that schools don’t forget the importance of liberal arts education in their haste to incorporate technical curriculum. Cutting out liberal arts education might not seem problematic initially, but students who are exposed only to STEM or STEAM education can miss out on important benefits.

Research conducted in 2013 by Hart Research Associates on behalf of The Association of American Colleges and Universities, for example, explains the potential benefits of a liberal arts education. The research entailed a survey of business and nonprofit leaders, and noted that 80 percent of employers feel that students should receive broad knowledge of the liberal arts and sciences. The report cites critical thinking, communication, and interpersonal skills as important results of a liberal arts education, claiming that 93 percent of employers surveyed say that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major” and 95 percent say that they want to hire individuals with “ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”

These results demonstrate the desire for non-technical skills, which points out the problem with purely technical education. Students who are technically intelligent, but lack important skills such as written and oral communication, are at a disadvantage. Even in technical jobs, individuals are required to interact with others and present their ideas, which requires strong communication and interpersonal skills. The increased focus on STEM education in K–12 schools is providing promising benefits, but we need to make sure that schools aren’t completely abandoning the liberal arts. By integrating STEM education with broad liberal arts concepts we can educate intelligent, well-rounded individuals who have both the technical skills and the nontechnical skills required to function in society.