Westinghouse High: A study in disorganization

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The placement of the two co-principals of the Academy at Westinghouse in Homewood on paid administrative leave elicits a standard comment from district officials: It's a personnel matter on which they can't comment.

Students and people who work in the building said they were surprised when they learned Shawn McNeil and Kellie Abbott had been placed on leave Wednesday. Many people said they hadn't yet been given a reason for the change.

Some said they felt the school, which serves grades 6-12, was disorganized before the shift, noting that some students waited more than a month and a half before receiving correct schedules.

Others pointed to the difficulties of creating one school out of two high schools and two middle schools.

"Nobody who works there would tell you that we didn't make mistakes," said Muzz Meyers, who works in the school through the nonprofit Communities in Schools. "They weren't mistakes from lack of caring, just mistakes from not having the foresight we should have."

The academy opened this fall in the former Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School, which served grades 9-12. Current students come to the academy either by choice or because they would have previously been assigned to Westinghouse, the now-closed Pittsburgh Peabody High School in East Liberty, or to grades 6-8 at Pittsburgh Faison in Homewood or Pittsburgh Lincoln in Lincoln-Lemington. The district counted an enrollment of 622 at the end of September.

Some critics urged the district to wait another year before transforming Westinghouse High School, but school Superintendent Linda Lane said that Westinghouse students were doing poorly under the status quo and that it was critical to improve the program this fall.

The school opened with two co-principals -- Mr. McNeil, who was principal at Westinghouse High School last year, and Ms. Abbott, who was principal of Peabody last year.

Rhonda Taliaferro, a district executive director on special assignment, moved from Pittsburgh University Prep at Milliones in the Hill District to Westinghouse four to six weeks ago and is now running the academy, district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.

Some critics had worried before the opening of the Academy at Westinghouse that bringing together students from different neighborhoods would lead to fights. Students interviewed Friday said they were less worried about blending neighborhoods than they were about mixing together middle and high school students.

"It's just a bunch of chaos," said Kimiya Howard, a junior who chose to transfer to Westinghouse from Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12 this year.

Kimiya said she often sees middle school students fight with one another and that she thinks high school students sometimes lose privileges as a result.

Mr. Meyers said, "The high school kids blame the middle school kids, and the middle school kids blame the high school kids." He added that he doesn't see more fights at Westinghouse than he would expect at any other school.

Schedules presented another point of contention for the students.

Taysha Cuulverson, a 17-year-old senior who attended Peabody last year, said she tried for weeks to get school staff to schedule her for the gym class she needed, instead of the art class for which the school accidentally registered her. She said her problem was fixed in the beginning of October.

She said she's considering switching to Pittsburgh Perry High School on the North Side or University Prep and is looking for someone to sign the transfer papers she picked up last week.

Regina Holley of Highland Park, a school board candidate who is a retired principal of Lincoln and a regular visitor at Westinghouse, believes the district underestimated the difficulty of combining students from so many schools.

"The sheer fact of moving four schools into one school was above and beyond what the district was able to understand, comprehend and then implement," said Ms. Holley, who said she is in Westinghouse once or twice a week to help with a Future Educators of America club.

For the board, Ms. Holley said, "The important thing is for the district to take this as a learning experience, go back and try to make this work as much as possible to help the children who are there right now. They do deserve to have a good education."

As the district considers closing other schools, she said, "They're going to have to make sure these problems are addressed right now, and they know what they're doing. They have to have a good implementation to make it work. They lacked that."

Randall Taylor, a former school board member who used to represent Homewood, called Westinghouse a "mess," said it was "ill planned" and recommended moving middle school children to the now-closed Peabody building "until we're able to put a real plan on the table on how to improve Westinghouse High School."

Kimiya, the junior, said she hopes people will keep an open mind as Westinghouse moves forward.

"Most people judge Westinghouse and the students in it," she said. "It's a new school that's trying to get better in time."

Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955. Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1438. Bill Schackner contributed to this report.


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