Wilkinsburg's new school leader wants support from community
August 19, 2013 4:00 AM
By Alex Zimmerman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It might be the toughest job in Wilkinsburg, and some say the future of the borough hinges on it.
Lee McFerren, who became superintendent July 1, is tasked with turning around a school district plagued by declining enrollment, soaring tuition payments to charter schools, violence and significant shortfalls in reading and math proficiency.
His selection as superintendent by the school board was met with criticism from some in the community and state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, who pointed to a troubled history with the Farrell Area School District -- his most recent employer -- and an opaque hiring process.
Despite that, Mr. McFerren says he's up to the task partly because he sees himself in Wilkinsburg students.
"The reason you come to a place like Wilkinsburg is because the people, the community, the kids who need someone to look up to -- who have gone through some of the same experiences as they have -- deserve the same type of high-quality leadership as all your suburban places."
Born in 1966 and raised in Meadville, Mr. McFerren talks about poverty and institutional racism as reasons he launched a career in education.
"I'd seen too many young people who were either African American or poor who depended on athletics and school systems and communities telling them that the only way to get out of a difficult situation was to be an athlete -- a great athlete -- so that you can become a pro," he said. "And it always disturbed me."
In 1988, Mr. McFerren earned a bachelor's degree in communications from Allegheny College -- the first in his family to finish college, he said -- and he initially pursued a career outside of education.
He worked for the Pirates, WAMO-FM and WTAE before he got his first teaching job in 1995, but said, "In the back of my mind I knew I wanted to get into education."
He has since worked for a handful of districts. He was an elementary and middle school teacher in the Crawford Central School District and taught elementary school students in the Quaker Valley School District, a principal in the Franklin Area School District, and most recently he was the assistant to the superintendent at the Farrell Area School District.
In Wilkinsburg, where economic progress is tied directly to the schools, the stakes are higher than just the fate of the 1,085-student district.
"It is very important in how people make decisions in where they purchase homes," said Tracey Evans, a borough council member and executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp.
"There is an understanding in the community that having a plan for the next 10 years for this school district is crucial. We are not at any point where people have a solution right now."
Mr. McFerren doesn't have a detailed plan yet, but he says the key to putting the district back on track is to get the community more involved.
"This community has to feel once again that it has something worth fighting for," he said. "This community has been beaten down so much. All you hear is the negative."
School board president Karen Payne did not return requests for comment.
On issues that range from a potential merger with a neighboring district -- he's against it -- to the prospect of a state takeover and his broader philosophy on education, Mr. McFerren shares much with his predecessor and mentor, Archie Perrin Jr.
Both men talk about doing more to engage students and reject the idea that students should spend lots of time sitting in rows.
"It's not going to change here until we change teachers, myself, my staff, and it all trickles down into better education for the kids," Mr. McFerren said, adding that he couldn't be specific about possible curricular changes.
Although Mr. McFerren has a checkered history with the Farrell Area district -- he was fired for negligence, intemperance and incompetence and was reinstated after a lawsuit -- some are confident in his ability to lead the district.
He declined to discuss his employment history with that district.
Jean Dexheimer, a veteran of the school board, said: "He impressed me as being very professional and of having a deep knowledge and interest in the kinds of [urban] educational questions that are raised by a district like ours."
Teacher union president Mike Evans echoed that sentiment.
"He seems to be really interested in doing what's best for students," Mr. Evans said.
"He is the new superintendent, and we have to find a way to work together to do what's best for the students of Wilkinsburg. We need to do that collaboratively."