Woodland Hills begins outreach

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Superintendent Alan Johnson of Woodland Hills School District presented his vision for transforming the district to a roomful of Braddock residents Monday night in the first in a series of town hall meetings planned throughout the district to inform residents of possible changes in the school system.

Questionnaires distributed to during the meeting at Resurrection Baptist Church asked for community responses to changes, including a possible 2.8 percent tax increase and closing of Fairless Elementary School, one of the district's lowest performing schools.

Tina Doose, president of Braddock Borough Council, worked with RBC's senior pastor, the Rev. Richard Freeman, to coordinate the meeting, which she called an important step to bridge the gap between school administrators and the community.

In his presentation, Mr. Johnson outlined some of the difficulties the district faces, including a loss of almost 2,000 students since 2001. State budget cuts and financial obligations to charter schools have also contributed heavily to the depletion of district finances, he said. He spoke of the impact of busing and tuition for charter school students, and said the district spends about $1.5 million a year on such charter school costs. "The district is learning to compromise and recognize a lot of hard truths and realities," Mr. Johnson said. "But, at the end of the day, it's about putting students first. I think a lot of times in the past in the district, we've put adults' feelings first and didn't necessarily look at the needs of the children."

Proposed curriculum changes include a heavier emphasis on reading for grades K-3; more interactive lessons for grades 4-6 based on science, technology, engineering, art and math; and the possible splitting of school buildings by re-grouping students as K-3, 4-6, 7 and 8, and high school.

Another proposal includes taking out a $40 million loan to upgrade aging technology systems within the schools, including desktop computers more than a decade old.

"If we're able to think a little differently, I think we can have some great success," Ms. Doose said. "This meeting was a chance for us to have a public dialogue, and I think a lot of things superintendent Johnson said were spot-on. It's important that we see the bigger picture."

Delores Scales, a Woodland Hills employee and Braddock resident, said she looks forward to more town hall meetings with district leaders, but with more of an open forum for community members to speak on their visions for district schools.

"We as taxpayers have the right to speak and give our opinions for what we want to see in the district," Ms. Scales said. "You have to hear what people want and expect, especially if you want to try to convince a lot of parents to bring their kids back" into the district.

"As a community, it's our spiritual and moral obligation to help make sure our children have a quality education," Rev. Freeman said at the meeting's close. "The district can only do so much. At the end of the day, it starts and ends with us loving on and supporting our kids."

Clarece Polke: cpolke@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889.

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