City schools consider changes to programs, school configurations

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In the midst of a $2.4 million envisioning process to plan its future, the Pittsburgh public school system is a bit like a homeowner trying to remodel a kitchen: Everything is on the table, from the granite counters to the stainless steel double-door refrigerator. The next step is figuring out whether the granite fits into the budget or if the counter can be shortened to make room for the refrigerator.

The school board last week heard an update on the process, which has included receiving community input and is moving toward developing strategic options over the summer.

The effort is known as "Envisioning Educational Excellence: A Plan for All of Pittsburgh's Children."

Using grant money, the district is paying for two consultants, FSG and Bellwether Education Partners, to help the district figure out how to improve academic quality while tackling a budget problem so serious the district expects to run out of money in 2016 unless it changes course.

That course correction may involve a combination of new programs and school closings, but no specific proposals have been made yet. There won't be any school closings this fall.

According to the latest report, based on the opinion of a local advisory group, two of the options to be explored further include making more seats available in existing high quality schools and opening up new campuses of successful schools such as Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Downtown, which offers creative and performing arts, and Pittsburgh Sci-Tech 6-12 in Oakland.

Both are magnet schools that have more applicants than seats.

The report also suggested exploring new models, such as "thematic courses that strengthen marketable job skills and/or use innovative instructional delivery," such as blended schools which combine in-person and online learning.

The district spent $38.5 million to build CAPA, which opened in 2003 as a high school Downtown. From 2004-12, CAPA cost the district another $11.7 million, including capital costs resulting from the move of the 6-8 program from Rogers in Garfield to the CAPA building in 2009.

To open Sci-Tech in 2009, the district spent nearly $13 million in renovations at the former Frick building, including classrooms, science labs, electrical power, cafeteria and flooring. Another $1.1 million has been spent since it opened.

Asked in an interview whether the district could afford to expand such programs, school Superintendent Linda Lane said, "It doesn't have to be done the way it was done the first time."

She wants to have all options on the table and then look at how much they would cost.

"I want us to not just shut down options because at first look I don't know how I could make that work. That's why we're trying to consider everything. Wait a minute, if we did it this way, how would that work?"

She noted, "It's how it all fits together in a budget."

She said the financial realities now will come into play as the strategic options are developed and readied to take before the board.

"It wouldn't make a lot of sense to bring forward options when there's no financial way to make it work," Ms. Lane said.

The idea of choice within a "school portfolio" is a common theme in the envisioning effort. Ms. Lane said she would like to "optimize choice to the extent we can."

Could Pittsburgh move to an all-choice system?

"I don't know that yet," she said. "All choice has some definite appeal from many of our families. We've got two sides of this issue we have to address. All choice also has some cost drivers associated with it. Transportation would definitely be one of those."

She wants any plan to be fiscally sustainable.

"So much of what we're hearing from community folks they would like are things that actually would have a pretty significant implication on our cost structure," she said.

She said the question is what would have to change to enable other changes.

Many students currently exercise choice. Of students in grades K-12 who live in the city, only about 40 percent attend the feeder school assigned by where they live. About 70 percent of all students living in the city attend a district-operated school.

At the school board meeting, board members expressed their view that all schools need to be high-quality.

Board member Sherry Hazuda said she thinks students choose schools other than their assigned one out of dissatisfaction with the assigned school.

"If we expand the options because we think they'll satisfy some people, they will, but it still doesn't shore up the regular feeder schools," she said.

Board member Regina Holley said parents are likely to choose schools in their own communities "if you have consistently good schools everywhere."

An online community survey -- completed by more than 700 people as part of the envisioning process -- showed that respondents, on average, were neutral about the statement that they feel comfortable about sending their own child or a child that is important to them to at least one district school.

However, the survey showed they disagreed, on average, that they could comfortably send a child to any district school.

The report noted how Pittsburgh has adopted a wide variety of grade configurations for its buildings -- K-5, K-8, 6-8, 6-12 and 9-12.

In the community survey, opinions were mixed as to whether there should be fewer grade configurations, with the average falling in the middle.

Ms. Lane said it would be "clumsy" to change the number of grade configurations. She said she hasn't "found a good way to get there" and it would involve "more moving around kids."

"We talked to principals about this. They didn't like it either, but they could not agree on which grade configuration would go," she said.

Board member Jean Fink said, "I don't so much have a problem with different grade configurations if it makes sense for that school. I'm not sure it makes sense everywhere."

Board member Thomas Sumpter said career and technical education programs have not been distributed equitably, noting an information technology option is available in the South and North but not in the East.

Although no specific school closings are up for consideration, the board began talking about the criteria for closing a school.

The report noted that past recent decisions were made based on student achievement, enrollment as a percent of capacity, facility condition and operations cost.

It raised the prospect of considering other criteria, such as race and socioeconomic demographics; impact of past closures on students; impact of future closures on neighborhoods and communities; facility size, location and potential uses; and choices already made by parents.

Board president Sharene Shealey, who attended middle school at CAPA when it was in Garfield, said she thinks admission to grades 6-8 should be by lottery, not audition as it is now, to help expose more students to the arts.

Ms. Shealey suggested moving the middle school CAPA to regional campuses and expanding the high school program Downtown.

She also said she thinks the Friendship building, which houses Pittsburgh Montessori PreK-8, would cost millions of dollars to repair and said the board should consider moving the program to the now-closed Fort Pitt building in Garfield, which is in better shape.

Board member Floyd McCrea said the district should consider starting an environmental school.

Ms. Holley suggested a moratorium on selling closed school buildings until a plan is decided, but Ms. Lane said new programs or schools most likely would be in buildings now open because they are in better condition.

Ms. Lane said the closed Gladstone in Hazelwood, for example, is "too far gone."

Another survey done for envisioning involved the central office staff, some of whom don't know each other or who handles what.

Ms. Lane said central office needs to develop a better culture and climate to be able to better help schools improve.

In an interview, Mary K. Wells, co-founder and managing partner of Bellwether Education Partners, said Pittsburgh probably has "more neighborhood spirit and neighborhood loyalty than in many other urban settings where that neighborhood feeling maybe has eroded over time."

Beyond that, she said the community is similar to others in wanting "high quality choices for their kids."

education - neigh_city

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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