A Q&A with Mary Niederberger


The cover photo of Ms. Niederberger’s profile of Dr. Hamlet

Daevan Mangalmurti and Sam Bisno

This Sunday, Pittsburgh Magazine and PublicSource published a profile of PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, written by veteran Pittsburgh education reporter Mary Niederberger. We caught up with Ms. Niederberger to ask her some questions about the process of writing the article and her thoughts on the biggest education issues in Pittsburgh today.

Your beat is education. Why that area?

It’s such an important area to report upon.  Education affects every single child and the quality of education that they receive determines how successful they can become in life. Also, every homeowner pays a substantial amount of property taxes to the school district in the community where they live and it is important to cover the districts to see if they are spending those tax dollars in the best way to educate students.  

Tell us about the process for writing the Hamlet article.

My editors approached Dr. Hamlet about the possibility of doing a profile so that we could see what he is actually doing to make his strategic plan work in Pittsburgh.  He agreed immediately and so I worked with the district Public Information Officer, Ebony Pugh, to set up dates and times when I could shadow Dr. Hamlet in various settings throughout the city and over a period of about eight weeks. The district suggested some of the days/events and I asked for others.  

Did this article differ from other pieces you’ve worked on? Where would you rank it in terms of memorability?

So this differed from other pieces in the amount of time I spent on it.  Reporters don’t often get to spend this much time going this in-depth on a subject. In terms of it being memorable, it ranks with 2-3 other stories where I actually had a good deal of time to spend with someone and really understand their mission.  

Why do you think Superintendent Hamlet was willing to open up so much of his time- and himself- up to you for this article?

I can only guess on this one.  But I think it’s because he wants the Pittsburgh community to see what his vision is and how he is going about trying to make that vision a reality. He didn’t really have to give up much of his time for the article.  It was more a matter of letting me tag along on things and ask questions.  

Having spoken so much with Mr. Hamlet, and knowing that many constituents of PPS do not look favorably upon his tenure, do you think he gets a bad rap?

I think there was much negativity that surrounded his beginnings here in Pittsburgh — the controversy over his resume.  I think there are some people who don’t ever want to forgive him for that, though others have. I also think there are employees in the district who don’t like all of the changes that Dr. Hamlet is trying to bring and so they have a negative view of him.  It’s human nature for people to reject or avoid change.

Having followed Dr. Hamlet for the amount of time that I did, I can say that he does very much have a vision and focus on what he wants to see happen in the district and he knows how he wants to make that happen and he is working hard to make that happen.  So as far as that goes, I think he likely deserves a reputation as someone who has researched his vision and is working hard to make it happen.  The big question — as the article points out — is whether he will be able to get everyone on board to make that vision become a reality.

As you were writing this article, you visited several schools with Dr. Hamlet. Did student opinions of the superintendent vary with each school?

There was no school where we visited that students were not happy to see him and friendly toward him.  At the elementary schools, students didn’t really know who he was but they were friendly and responsive to him. At the secondary schools, where students knew who he was, in all cases they appeared to be excited to see him and often asked for selfies with him. The only negative reaction I received about Dr. Hamlet was at Pittsburgh CAPA, where we were just after the teachers union announced that it was taking a strike vote.  There was a student there who told Dr. Hamlet she was going to be very upset if there was a strike and her graduation was delayed.

In your mind, what is the biggest issue facing PPS that Dr. Hamlet needs to address?

The racial lines along which multiple important issues fall.  The academic achievement gap between white and black students. The fact that black students are far more likely to be suspended or arrested than white students.  And the fact that there are so few black students in the gifted program. Second biggest issue is the low achievement scores throughout the district.

What’s your impression of the teachers’ strike? What needs to be done to avoid conflicts like it in the future?

It’s nearly impossible for me to comment on the threat of a teachers strike presented by the union.  I’m not at the bargaining table and I only know what the issues are based on press releases.  There are many nuances in negotiations and only the two sides at the table know what they are. I will say I think it would be devastating for students and their families if there is a strike. Students would lose out on crucial learning time and preparation for state assessments and learning time and preparations for AP exams.  Working parents would be scrambling to find child care and some will be faced with the choice of either losing work (and pay) or leaving their children home unattended.

On Wednesday, a shooter walked into a school in Florida and gunned down 17 people. This marks the latest in a series of countless comparable tragedies. What do we do?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I have worried about this issue both as a reporter and a parent. Clearly the availability of firearms needs to be addressed.  But beyond that, I think all of systems involved — schools, law enforcement, Congress — need to put their heads together and act quickly and effectively.

Students across the nation have begun planning a walkout to express their outrage over the fact that very little has been done to protect schools from shootings over the past decade. How do you feel about that idea?

I’m not familiar with the walkout that you are mentioning.  But I heard this morning on the national news that students are planning a march on Washington next month. I think that any planned, peaceful protest that students plan could be effective.  I keep hearing students say that adults have failed children in this area and I think they are right.  Congress and the President have not listened to adults who would like to see changes made in gun laws.  Perhaps they will listen to the students.  But it makes sense for students to make sure their voices are heard.  They are the ones who are dying because of the inaction of adults.

We are grateful for Ms. Niederberger for answering our questions, and we urge readers to look at more of her work over at PublicSource.