For at least 20 years, interlocking problems have plagued Wilkinsburg schools

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In the Wilkinsburg School District, almost half of students don't graduate.

A third of students have been involved in incidents that threatened school safety. On state tests, 86.4 percent of 11th graders aren't proficient in math and 68.3 percent aren't proficient in reading.

The district is hemorrhaging students to charter schools. It borrowed $3 million for general operating expenses and has furloughed about 80 teachers in the past three years.

Some residents are taken aback when asked for their assessment of the district, seeing it as self-evident that the district has already fallen off the cliff.

"Honestly, it's too far gone," said Wilkinsburg resident Stephanie Shea. "Code blue happened a while ago. At this point, it needs to be totally dismantled."

The district struggles to finance even the most basic academic programs, and families who would likely bolster the district often leave.

Interviews with officials, students, teachers and parents in the district reveal a set of interlocking problems that may prove too large for the district to solve. One thing is clear, though: State and local leaders haven't made much progress in addressing them.

In March, the district was placed on the state's "financial watch list," which may be a precursor to a state takeover. Less than two weeks ago, the board made a controversial choice of a new superintendent, Lee McFerren, who was fired in 2008 by the school board of the Farrell Area School District in Mercer County and reinstated after a settlement was reached in 2011, according to the Sharon Herald.

These are just the latest issues facing a district that has struggled for more than 20 years. In 1994, it brought in a private, for-profit company to run Turner Elementary, making it the first school district in the nation to privatize a public school. The teacher union objected and the case drew national attention. In 1997, the program was defeated in the courts. The issues that made headlines then -- low test scores, high millage rates and poverty -- haven't gone away.

A student perspective

Tehilah "Taylor" Spencer was in many ways a model Wilkinsburg student. A 2012 graduate, he was president of student council and the drama club. He just finished his first year of college at Saint Francis University.

But talk to Mr. Spencer, who arrived in Wilkinsburg from Jamaica, and he'll tell you the one year he spent there is a year he wishes he could have back.

"There wasn't a drive for success the way I thought there should be," he said. "There would be kids walking around, not in class, security guards shouting at them, teachers not coming to school."

The school he attended in Jamaica had academic and disciplinary standards he thought would be replicated at his new school.

"If I didn't get homework in the Jamaican school, my mom would say 'what's going on?' " But at Wilkinsburg: "It was laid back -- I could just do whatever I want. I had all the time to myself."

Despite the shortcomings in his experience at Wilkinsburg, he made lots of friends and liked some of his teachers. In his capacity on student government, he worked with the administration to start "student choice awards" because he thought students were only being recognized when they got in trouble.

But Mr. Spencer said working with the administration was frequently a challenge. "It wasn't as tied together an administration I thought a school should be," he said.

The president of the teacher union and 37-year veteran of the district, Mike Evans is -- perhaps more than most -- acutely aware of the district's problems.

His voice might sound raspy at first, but it fills with a deep sense of conviction for public education when asked about the district's future.

He acknowledges that the number of programs are dwindling, that aides and support staff in classrooms have been furloughed and archery, tennis and swimming are no longer offered.

He'll tell you the tax base is eroding and that there is a perception that 1990s-era gang violence is still a problem. When he started, the schools were racially integrated. Now, about 95 percent of students are African-American and the vast majority are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

When asked why all of these things are true, he said it is because the state has failed in its responsibility to adequately fund districts like Wilkinsburg.

"Teaching in Wilkinsburg under the conditions the governor and the Legislature puts us in makes it extremely depressing," Mr. Evans said. "Pennsylvania doesn't seem to have a problem at all when they need to build a new prison. But when it's time to help children so maybe they won't wind up there, there isn't enough money."

Acting superintendent Archie Perrin Jr. said that both academically and financially, the district is "in a recovery state."

Mr. Perrin joined the district in 1999 as the middle and high school principal and seven years later was named superintendent. Before that, Mr. Perrin worked as an assistant superintendent at the Duquesne School District, a district with similar problems that was taken over by the state.

In a conversation that started with questions about why Mr. Perrin was interested in education, he gave several brief answers. When asked why he wanted to become superintendent of Wilkinsburg, he said, "Because I was an assistant superintendent and wanted to become a superintendent."

Asked why he got into education he said, "My love for children."

He said that Wilkinsburg will get back on its feet financially with a series of "cuts across the board."

Business manager Philip Martell added that the district is running an amnesty program aimed at collecting delinquent taxes, it closed Johnston Elementary last year -- one of the district's three elementary schools -- and there will be more layoffs next year.

Mr. Perrin said that the high school needs to be entirely restructured.

He said the restructuring effort needs to recognize that students won't respond well to the methods that have been used since the 1950s.

"They are not students that are going to respond to sitting in desks in straight rows," Mr. Perrin said. "Until we recognize that and train our staff ... we are going to continue to be disconnected."

Mr. Perrin did not elaborate further on his efforts to restructure the high school during his time as superintendent or as the high school principal.

Mr. McFerren, the incoming superintendent, could not be reached for comment.

A top-down culture

Donora Craighead has lived in Wilkinsburg for 25 years and served as a school board member from 2002 to 2011. All five of her children attended schools in the district, though her two youngest wound up in a cyber charter school.

"It was a tough decision to make," Ms. Craighead, 52, said, referring to the decision to send her children to a charter school. "I was still on the board at the time. I had to make sure my children got the best education possible."

Looking back on her tenure as a school board member, Ms. Craighead said that many of the problems that existed in the early 1990s still exist and she thinks Mr. Perrin's leadership style made it difficult to institute meaningful change.

"We need a superintendent that can manage their staff and can get along with them, to establish a sense of community and respect, and I'm sad to say Mr. Perrin wasn't able to do that."

Ms. Craighead said Mr. Perrin frequently asked the board to vote on time-sensitive issues after introducing them in executive sessions immediately before a vote.

"I don't want to say we were being manipulated, but it was forcing us to not look too deeply into the situation," Ms. Craighead said, adding that school board members were discouraged from visiting the schools.

Jean Dexheimer, also a longtime Wilkinsburg resident and school board member from 1999 to 2011, expressed a similar sentiment.

"Wide participation in decision-making was not part of [Mr. Perrin's] style, and I think the district needed to have a more democratic style of leadership," she said.

"I'm sure a lot of people will be angry when they read this because the general feeling is that we should defend our community and we should only talk about what's positive. I just don't buy that. I think part of being a community involves frank discussions of what's not working and building consensus to fix what's broken."

When asked to respond to these criticisms, Mr. Perrin said: "We have made changes in the district. I was hired as a change agent. I respect their opinion. But I disagree with that."

Neither Ms. Dexheimer nor Ms. Craighead said they were surprised to hear that Mr. Perrin denied multiple requests by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to observe a class in the high school or at Turner Elementary, even after being invited by Mr. Evans, the president of the teacher union.

Mr. Perrin said of the request to observe a class: "What's wrong is you have outsiders coming into a public situation. This is a public school, not a public forum."

Fear of speaking out

When asked what he thinks of Mr. Perrin's leadership, Richard Bradford, a current school board member and 2005 graduate of the district, said: "From my perspective he's done everything that was asked of him by the board as a building principal and as a superintendent. If you're just going to throw eggs, he won't have time for that."

In a meeting with eight teachers and high school principal Steve Puskar, teachers also were hesitant to discuss what they saw as the challenges facing the district.

"I don't know that they're going to talk about things that didn't go well," said Rian Crothers, a Wilkinsburg teacher and the union representative at the high school. "You have to understand, in our contract it states that anything that we say negative about this district in public we could lose our jobs. I'm not risking anyone's job today. I can't get into the negative."

But Ms. Crothers was later willing to talk about some of the challenges she sees students facing.

"This isn't the suburbs. This isn't Franklin Regional where the kids go to bed at 8 and get up at 7, and get a shower every day -- get three meals every day."

When asked what kind of academic success stories she sees in the district, Ms. Crothers said it is important to look at improvement, not just standardized test scores.

"We have kids who start the year off with 30 percents on their reading tests, and they finish maybe with a 60 percent. It's still failing, but that's growth and that's what we're here for. We're never going to get 100 percent of the population to 100 percent proficiency."

Community and school violence

Parents often say they avoid the district because of violence.

"It's to the point where I'm sure some teachers are very afraid for their well being," said Ms. Craighead, a former school board member.

Last school year, there were almost 1,000 instances of violence in the district, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education's safe schools report.

There were 98 assaults on students, 23 assaults on staff, five sexual assaults, 29 reports of possession or use of a controlled substance and 480 reports of disorderly conduct.

The districtwide truancy rate, which accounts for students who miss six or more unexcused days of school, was 40.91 percent. The high school, at 57.4 percent, was the highest reported by a district in the county.

"I don't think there's anybody here who doesn't feel safe here," said Ms. Crothers, a Wilkinsburg teacher. "If I was nervous to come here, then I'd say I work in a violent school."

Mr. Puskar, the high school principal, agreed that he doesn't feel unsafe. "There's a misconception about the safety of the building. I feel safer than in suburban communities," he said. "I don't think those incidents have been reported properly," Mr. Perrin said of the safe schools report, though he acknowledged that those are the numbers that the district reported to the state.

"I don't want to comment on how the numbers have been reported. That's too lengthy to get into."

Despite the challenges facing the district, students have found an engaging environment in an after-school program called FUSE -- an acronym for Fostering Skills for Urban Kids Through Social-Emotional-Literacy Education.

Chris Carnevali, a Wilkinsburg teacher, admits it's a mouthful, but she believes that there need to be enriching spaces for students, even if they aren't in the schools.

The organization works with about 20 students at any given time and is funded entirely by private donations, according to Steven Alschuler, chairman of FUSE's board.

The space is a warehouse about a mile from the high school. Students can get help with homework, SAT prep or their senior projects, but they also venture into the world of documentary film making, literacy training and environmental projects.

"There are so many fronts where they have to negotiate the world in a way that I never had to in my life," Ms. Carnevali said. "We live dysfunction in our classrooms."

Lakeisha Wright, a Wilkinsburg senior who participates in FUSE, said her school isn't all bad, but there aren't as many classes as she hoped. She said the refrain "Do good on tests, do good on tests," reverberates through students' minds.

She plans to attend Carlow University this fall.

Ms. Carnevali has encouraged students to speak out about their experiences, including at a protest last year over the lack of Advanced Placement classes or after-school activities. Ms. Carnevali resigned earlier this year, citing the district's financial instability.

Asked why she continues to believe in Wilkinsburg students, she said: "I love the underdog. I always want to find that hope in something."

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Alex Zimmerman:, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.


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