Out-of-town consultants to scrutinize Pittsburgh Public Schools' issues

Nonprofits to work with community to improve district

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It's the $2.4 million question: Can an out-of-town consulting firm -- along with its out-of-town partner -- help Pittsburgh Public Schools address its financial and academic challenges?

Tonight, community members invited to serve on an advisory group will have their first chance to meet the consultants and give their input at school board headquarters in Oakland.

The school board has hired the nonprofit FSG -- based in Boston -- for its "expertise and technical assistance."

FSG will work with the nonprofit Bellwether Education, based in Wellesley, Mass., which focuses on improving the achievement of low-income students.

Earlier this month, representatives from FSB and Bellwether met with the school district's central office staff and others.

The process is called: "Envisioning Educational Excellence: A Plan for All of Pittsburgh's Children."

The firms are being paid by a $2.4 million grant from the Fund for Excellence, which is a consortium of local foundations and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Cate Reed, the district's executive director for strategic priorities, said more than 70 people -- including parents, teachers, students, school leaders, community group representatives and other community members -- have been invited.

At tonight's meeting, she said, panel members will learn about the complexity of the district's problems and give their input.

"This may sound cliche: We actually believe the solutions to these problems sit with the people we're talking to," she said.

The advisory group will form subcommittees and meet as a whole again in May and August.

The subcommittees will examine six areas: finance and budget analysis; student outcomes and effectiveness; organization and human capital; information technology and operations; stakeholder engagement and communication; and the types of available schools and the external landscape.

Other community input will come from consultants' interviews with more than 100 people.

"We went out of our way to include people who sometimes have been very critical of the work we've done," Ms. Reed said. Other opportunities for public input also may be arranged.

FSG works in a wide array of sectors, including looking at "collective impact," which "revolves around the idea you need cross-sector solutions to complex social problems," FSG director Brad Bernatek said.

FSG has more than 100 employees; Bellwether has about 20.

Mr. Bernatek said the two firms have "different skill sets" but "a lot of good overlap in the way we like to approach problems."

Mary K. Wells, a co-founder and managing partner at Bellwether, said Bellwether is not committed to a particular school model.

"We're for high-performing schools that serve all kids really well. I think we're quite agnostic around whether that is the traditional public school setting or the charter school setting," she said.

Mr. Bernatek said FSG also is "fairly agnostic" on that issue as well.

Ms. Wells said, "We want to come up with a plan that is actionable, one that people buy into and that will focus on both the academic and financial levers."

In the 56-page proposal, the consultants state they "aim to bring you bold and innovative thinking that will build on PPS' strengths and current success while challenging the district to transform itself into an organization that can deeply, fully and effectively deliver the best possible outcomes for its students and their families."

When the board voted on the contract last month, superintendent Linda Lane said the funders did not have any input into the consultants' selection.

The Gates Foundation has funded other studies done by FSG as well as Bellwether.

Ms. Reed said there likely will be some short-term recommendations by summer that could potentially have an impact on the 2014 budget.

She said longer-term recommendations could take place in the spring and in the following couple of years.

The proposal submitted by FSG calls for starting with 11/2 months of a "vision for impact," followed by three months of a "current state assessment" of the district, followed by 11/2 months of external research and benchmarking.

Then comes 21/2 months of developing "strategic options" after which implementation planning takes place for 21/2 months.

From then through 2015, the plan -- once the board gives necessary approvals --will be implemented, with support from the consultants.

Unless spending or revenue changes, district officials expect the district to run out of money in 2015.

Ms. Reed said the district doesn't have the luxury of letting recommendations sit on the shelf.

"On Jan. 1, 2015, we have to have a solution," she said.

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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