Oliver's seniors fell short on days

District blames principal, seeks waiver from state

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Pittsburgh Public Schools officials say the principal at Pittsburgh Oliver High School deviated from the school district calendar without authorization and shortened the school year for seniors, leaving the district scrambling to make things right with the state.

Principal T. William Weems scheduled seniors' finals for May 29 and June 2, even though the district calendar called for seniors at all 10 high schools to have finals June 3-5, district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.

He also scheduled June 2 as the seniors' last class day, when the district calendar set June 6 as the last class day for seniors districtwide, Ms. Pugh said.

As a result, seniors at the North Side school didn't put in all 180 class days that the state requires in a school year. School board records indicate seniors were short six days, but Ms. Pugh yesterday could account only for five -- May 30 and June 3-6.

Ms. Pugh said she couldn't explain Mr. Weems' actions, and he didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

At the request of district administrators, the school board will vote Wednesday on asking the state Department of Education for permission to substitute six teacher-training days next school year for days the Oliver seniors missed.

If the waiver is granted, the state will consider the students to have fulfilled the 180-day requirement. If the waiver is denied, the state will withhold a portion of the school district's subsidy in a future school year, Education Department spokesman Michael Race said.

The state declined yesterday to estimate the potential penalty, with Mr. Race saying the state would attempt no calculation until the district files paperwork seeking the waiver. He said any penalty would be based on the number of seniors and missed days.

Under no circumstances will the 211 Oliver students who graduated last weekend have to give back diplomas or attend summer school, Ms. Pugh said. She's said she's confident state officials won't levy a financial penalty, either.

"They typically would approve this type of request. We don't abuse it," Ms. Pugh said.

She wasn't immediately able to say how long Mr. Weems has been with the district or give his salary. State data from the 2006-07 school year showed that Mr. Weems had a salary of about $96,000 and had been with the district for 10 years.

Jean Fink, a school board member for more than 30 years, said she could not recall another occasion when a scheduling snafu threatened the district's compliance with the 180-day requirement.

Ms. Pugh said there were no problems with year-end schedules for Oliver's ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders, and no problems for any students at the other nine high schools. She said district officials will remind principals of the importance of following the district calendar.

The state requires that high school students receive 990 hours of instruction and attend school 180 days in a school year. Ms. Pugh said Oliver's seniors met the former requirement.

Teacher-training days, time spent evaluating graduation projects and parent-teacher meetings are among the possible substitutions when districts otherwise have difficulty meeting the 180-day requirement, the state said.

Often, such waivers are granted when school districts have more snow days in a school year than the districts built into their calendars. Ms. Pugh said the Pittsburgh district has previously received weather-related waivers.

Mr. Race said as many as 80 percent of the state's 501 districts request and receive waivers each year -- a percentage he said is high because of the demand for weather-related waivers. He said some districts request waivers as a safety net, but never use them.

He wasn't able to say how frequently a district receives a waiver because of a scheduling mistake.

Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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