Four years ago, the Pittsburgh Public School Schools hired Superintendent Mark Roosevelt to navigate the district through the murky waters of No Child Left Behind, declining enrollment, underused facilities, budget deficits and a racial achievement gap through which you could drive a yellow school bus. While progress has been made toward some of these goals, real success will take the support of every part of the Pittsburgh community: parents, students, teachers, administration and school board.
Parents United for Responsible Educational Reform (PURE Reform) was started last summer by parents and city residents concerned that not enough information was reaching school district stakeholders. We aimed to serve as a clearinghouse for information through our Web site and to provide the opportunity for dialogue on our blog.
PURE Reform grew from the "Save Schenley" movement but now is focused on districtwide reform. Two issues reach into every part of the reform process: community buy-in and transparency.
Mr. Roosevelt has proposed a myriad of large-scale changes during his tenure. Successful implementation of such changes must be accompanied by stakeholder buy-in. Yet efforts to meaningfully engage communities have been conspicuously absent.
• Sweeping plans were made to create smaller, 6th-to-12th grade, themed schools without community input about the right balance with comprehensive neighborhood schools, the geographic distribution of various types of schools and the impact of these changes on sports and extracurricular activities. Thus, most of the East End may be left without a full-service, comprehensive high school.
• When the merger of the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts with Rogers CAPA Middle School was proposed, the CAPA community, including the committee that was appointed by the superintendent, strongly argued against the move, citing concrete examples of how it would be detrimental to these two model performing arts schools. These stakeholders were ignored.
• Schenley stakeholders raised concerns about the dramatic decrease in diversity that would result from creating the University Prep and International Baccalaureate high schools, only to have their concerns dismissed.
• Many parents and teachers voiced opposition to a policy that allows no grades below 50 percent, which encourages mediocrity and artificially pumps up graduation rates, to no avail.
• A committee formed to select a site for the International Baccalaureate program that was displaced when Schenley was closed did not have a single member from the four schools being considered. Subsequently, Peabody and Westinghouse stakeholders formed committees to discuss the fate of their schools. This would seem to indicate that the district administration was taking its planning process to the streets, but these groups resulted from the community responding to district initiatives that had already set the dominoes tumbling, leaving few options left on the table.
• A year after the school district closed South Vo-Tech, the superintendent pledged to create a new site for the Career and Technologies Education Program. Four years later, there is still no commitment to fulfill this promise.
Transparency is another essential component for successfully implementing far-reaching reforms. The current reform process is rife with examples of how the administration has been less than forthright:
• The Pittsburgh Public Schools contracted with Community Education Partners, a private firm that specializes in educating troubled students, for more than $5 million per year despite the fact that CEP has a track record of running what The Nation magazine has called "soft prisons" in other major cities. When PURE Reform requested information regarding performance evaluations for this organization and its facility here, the district stated that no written record of any assessment exists.
• The district administration has touted the University of Pittsburgh's involvement with the University Prep High School as a key to this school's success. To date, the exact nature of this collaboration has not been clearly articulated.
• When the superintendent recommended closing Schenley High School, substantial information was presented that countered the district's claims regarding the school's renovation needs and associated costs. The administration stymied resistance to the closure by including in its propaganda a $76 million-plus renovation figure, which was far more than needed to make the school safe for at least 30 years. The district's own experts, backed up by a committee of community professionals, estimated a $40 million renovation cost. Recent developments, such as information on inconsistencies in asbestos maintenance in the schools and the receipt of $55 million or more over two years in federal stimulus money for "shovel ready," bricks-and-mortar projects, should make revisiting the Schenley closure a real possibility.
PURE Reform is dedicated to the improvement of all of our public schools and wants desperately for public school reform to succeed. We understand that extensive changes are needed but will not accept change for change's sake. Excellent ideas are nothing without credible and efficient implementation.
We certainly do not claim to have all of the answers. We are simply asking for a comprehensive, transparent and truly inclusive reform process. It is now up to the Pittsburgh Public Schools administration to listen.
Kathryn Fine is a co-founder of PURE Reform and lives in Highland Park ( www.purereform.com ).