HomeSuscribe TodayBack IssuesMembershipCarnegie Museums of PittsburghMedia Kit










Photo: L:isa Kyle





Mark Roosevelt

A year into his job, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt is looking to the future with a resolve that, if he has anything to say about it, won’t be denied. He came to Pittsburgh last year after 30+ years in politics and behind-the-scenes work in educational reform. Now he’s right in the middle of the battle—because for him, education really is a battleground, where the stakes couldn’t possibly be any higher. As he prepared for the new school year, he spoke with Carnegie magazine about those stakes, and how he’s tackling his job the only way he can: with “a weird combination of impatience and patience.” As he explains, “You have to be impatient for the status quo, but patient with people’s needs to understand change.” By betsy momich

Where does your passion for education come from?
All my life I thought I wanted to be in politics, and I was in politics for 38 years. As I grew up during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, politics was the vehicle for social change. But I got very disillusioned. Luckily enough, I became very involved in education reform issues. And for me, public education has replaced politics as my sort of place to be, where you think you can make things better.

I think education is the most important civil rights issue. I think it’s the most important economic issue. I think it’s the most important cultural issue. There is just so much that happens to a child between when they arrive now in pre-K in our schools and when they leave at age 18. We have a profound influence over their life direction.

Can you sum up your thoughts on the issue of equity in public schools?
Well, it’s a big one. I think the complexity for an urban school district such as Pittsburgh is that it’s our obligation to meet the needs of the kids who have hugely different backgrounds and come to us in hugely different situations. How do you not shortchange anybody? That comes up in individual classrooms, it comes up in individual schools, it comes up across the whole system. And that’s not just socio-economically driven; there are many poor children that come to school eager to learn, ready to learn and with great skill-sets. And there are many children from well-off backgrounds who have a variety of problems that cause them to struggle.

Do you feel that, now more than ever, it takes a community of people and organizations to educate our kids?
Absolutely. First of all, we don’t really know what it requires because nobody is doing it. It isn’t as if there are urban school systems across the country that are educating a vast majority of their kids to a high standard; there aren’t. So the problem is obviously a deep one. And I think that it is going to require significantly different ways of doing business.

Just as an example, I think all of our kids are not only going to need an individual education plan but an individual wellness plan. Many of our children don’t have the scaffolding in their lives, in their families, in their communities, that they need, so what we’ve been doing in the meantime is kind of bemoaning that fact. Bemoaning it isn’t enough; we have to create some substitute scaffolding. That’s going to require building a lot of bridges to a lot of folks to deliver things to school children who are, after all, also children.

What role do you feel the cultural community can play in your plans?
A lot of people will say, well, if you are going to emphasize reading and numerical skills, the arts will fall by the wayside. I just think we have to get more creative in terms of seeing how we can use arts education. I’m not one who sees a lot of tension between the emphasis on basic skills in core subjects and arts and culture education. We all know that if a kid gets excited about any one thing academically, it affects all of their academics and activities. So I think we need to see the arts as one of the many tools in getting our kids excited about the world. Because one of the reasons kids drop out and lose interest is that nothing is captivating.

What can bringing the arts into a curriculum do for a child’s education?
Well, I have a lot of prejudices in this regard because I got a very privileged education. Yes, I was taught how to read and write, and basic math skills; but I always had incredible access in Washington, D.C., to museums, to music, to the arts.

It’s one of the complexities we face, because you are trying to do two things: You are trying to educate kids to be able to participate in a complicated economy, but you are also trying to educate them to have a full experience of life. Luckily, the data and the evidence show us that these things are related, and that the worst thing to have is a child who is just disinterested and unaffected by anything in their environment. And the arts are clearly an underutilized tool to break through that indifference.

If you were sitting in a room with all of the city’s cultural organizations, what would you ask of them?
I think what we would ask, over time, is, how do we get you to help us develop some really innovative offerings to excite kids around what you have to offer and integrate that into their academic progress? I am very big on the concept of integration. If you are looking at any series of paintings, they have a historical context, they have an economic context. You know…French 17th century paintings seem to be all about farming. Why? Well, everybody was farming. Kids may not realize that. So I think what is really going to have to happen more is the ability to work with institutions to deepen the connections around all of these issues. And I doubt if we’ve done a good job of that.

Having lived here for a year now, what are your thoughts about Pittsburgh?
My experience of Pittsburgh is that people who are new here appreciate it much more than people who have been here for a long time. Pittsburgh undersells itself. And I think the price to Pittsburgh is not insignificant. I moved here from Boston. Pittsburgh is a friendlier city than Boston, Pittsburgh is a smaller metropolitan area, but it has remarkably similar cultural offerings to Boston.

Every city has advantages and disadvantages; and you can let your disadvantages defeat you, or you can let your advantages bring you further success. And right now I think Pittsburgh needs to mobilize itself around a vision of its future that is positive and energized and takes advantage of its huge assets.

The school system is part of that, and we have to begin talking about a vision for what we can do, because Pittsburgh has the ingredients to be a high-flying urban public school district. We have incredible foundations, we have incredible cultural institutions and universities, and the pieces are all there. It’s just up to us to put them together and make them work.

Back | Top