Pittsburgh's Woolslair School tries to reshape its image

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Once doomed to close, Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5 might have a second chance as a magnet school specializing in science, the arts and math. But parents, teachers and community members can't take that possibility for granted, said parent Valerie Allman.

"The board will not give us a third chance," Ms. Allman, a Troy Hill mother of two Woolslair students and originator of the "Save Woolslair" Facebook page, told a group of parents, teachers and administrators gathered inside the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville school's gymnasium Thursday evening. "This is an opportunity we cannot squander. The board will not stand up for us if we don't stand up for ourselves."

Woolslair, the smallest school in the district, has seen its enrollment drop from more than 350 students in 1997 to 110 students this year, with a projected enrollment of 90 next year. The previous school board slated it for closure at the end of last year, potentially saving $650,000 to $950,000 a year and helping fill a budget shortfall that Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators expect to grow to $46 million in 2016.

Pittsburgh City Council members, however, have asked for a moratorium on school closings. And when new school board members took office in December, they gave the school one year to raise enrollment by instituting major changes.

Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Regina Holley, whose district includes Woolslair and who attended Thursday's meeting, said the school's supporters had made "an excellent first start," and their proposal had earned her vote. Fellow board members also will be impressed, she said.

"I think the board will be pleasantly surprised to see how far they've gotten and what they've accomplished."

A planning committee composed of teachers, parents, administrators and community members will present a formal proposal to the school board this fall, suggesting that the school become a full magnet STEAM program of science, technology, engineering, art and math. The school would give admissions preference to neighborhood children, even as it tries to attract new students to the school, supporters said.

When current Woolslair families were surveyed about what kind of program they want for their children in the future, the STEAM proposal was favored by 34 percent, according to Jaline Cunningham, a mother of four whose youngest attends the school. The next most popular proposals were a global citizens and international studies program, at 23 percent; science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, at 14 percent; a community school, at 11 percent; an environmental emphasis, at 10 percent; and a health and medicine focus, at 8 percent, according to Ms. Cunningham.

If the school is saved, current school leaders want to enlist more volunteers to help in Woolslair's classrooms and at events, said parent Tommy Jetter, who also leads the school's parent-teacher organization. Woolslair is a welcoming place where teachers and administrators appreciate parents and their help, Ms. Jetter said.

"This is the time in our children's lives when we need to build a good foundation for communication," she said. "When the school doors open, you will be greeted with a smile."

Woolslair teacher Kathy Michelotti, who has taught special education there for six years, said she wants to prevent the pain of closure endured by the fellow teachers, parents and students at Pittsburgh Madison when it closed. And the Woolslair plan will increase student engagement because it allows students to learn through practical projects, she added.

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com. Eleanor Chute contributed.

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