Wilkinsburg school district gets negative marks

Study: Has lost the community's confidence

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There's at least one aspect of the Wilkinsburg School District that parents consistently like, and it's something administrators don't have much influence over.

Their kids can walk to school.

And even though many of the 560 respondents praised teachers in the district, the findings of a report released Wednesday by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation bring into sharper definition the picture of a school district that has lost the confidence of its community.

On measures ranging from whether students are being prepared for the future, school safety and leadership of the district by administrators and school board members, community members consistently demonstrated their unhappiness:

• Just 7 percent said they are proud to have students in their community attend district schools.

• Five percent would recommend the district to friends and family.

• On more open-ended responses, a significant number of respondents "prefer a merger with another school district, are dissatisfied with academic performance and student outcomes, and perceive a lack of leadership among administration and the board," according the report. "In fact, in no category measured did WSD exceed the public's expectations."

• Seventy percent of respondents said the district rated "low" or "very low" in terms of creating a safe and secure environment for students.

• Seventy-nine percent marked "low" or "very low" on preparing students for the future.

• Sixty-eight percent marked the bottom two indicators when asked whether the school board exhibits strength in leadership and strategic planning.

School board president Karen Payne could not be reached for comment.

Local leaders, including newly hired superintendent Lee McFerren, weren't surprised by the results. But he played down the negative survey results as mostly due to misconceptions about the district.

"I just don't think the community has a lot of confidence in the school district right now," Mr. McFerren said, adding he hopes the district's parent-community liaison can help change that. "So when you couple that with ongoing negative public relations about the school district, no, the results aren't surprising. The reality here is we have some excellent teachers, some excellent administrators, and other caring professionals in this district."

The WCDC commissioned the survey, which was administered earlier this summer, from The Hill Group with a $10,000 grant, said Tracey Evans, executive director of the WCDC and a borough council member.

"It really brings out the fact that the community as a whole is dissatisfied ... but that they also feel we need to address those issues and come up with a plan."

Bernie Wetzel said the survey might be the impetus to shake up the district.

He's the chair of a community group called Neighbors Unite Wilkinsburg, which endorsed four primary-winning school board candidates.

"If you look at the dynamics that surround any large-scale change, there has to be sufficient dissatisfaction with the status quo, and we've reached that tipping point as reflected in the survey," Mr. Wetzel said.

"There are many factors that lead us to this situation, and it would be a mistake to start pointing fingers. It would also be a mistake to say that anybody has the answer."

Terence King, a teacher at Turner Elementary who graduated from Wilkinsburg High School, said that while he acknowledges the district has problems, some of them could be repaired by parents getting more involved in their children's education.

"Are there things [parents] could do to be better? Absolutely. Are there things we could do better? Absolutely."

A critique of outsiders who don't have a full picture of what's going on in the schools was echoed by Mike Evans, president of the teachers union.

"On the survey, a lot of those folks who responded care about students in public education," he said. "But at the same time it's very easy for someone to sit on the outside."

education - breaking - neigh_east

Alex Zimmerman: azimmerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.


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