Historic Woolslair K-5 target of proposed closing to help tackle Pittsburgh Public Schools budget deficit

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Lisa Gallagher, principal at Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5, has a tough job today, the first day for students since superintendent Linda Lane proposed closing the school on the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville border.

“In my head, I know the reasoning, but in my heart, it’s hard,” said Ms. Gallagher, who went to kindergarten and has been a teacher or principal since 1997 at Woolslair, where her father and grandfather also attended.

Built in 1897, Woolslair is one of the district’s oldest schools and now, with 110 students, has the smallest enrollment in the district. Ms. Lane says it costs twice as much per student to operate than comparable elementary schools.

Nothing is final, but Ms. Lane Monday asked the board to vote on Nov. 26 to start the closing process that includes a hearing and a 90-day public comment period. The vote could take place in March, with a closure at the end of this school year.

The closure would save $650,000 to $950,000 a year, just a piece of what the district is trying to save as it faces a budget deficit estimated to grow to $46 million in 2016, when the district would run out of money if it doesn’t make changes.

Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an education advocacy group, said that while school closings are emotional, other proposed cuts will affect students across the district.

School officials presented cuts that would save from $17 million to $45 million a year — depending on how aggressive the board wants to be. The possibilities range from mowing the grass less frequently to moving some special education students from regional classrooms to neighborhood schools.

A formal proposal is expected next month as part of the district’s envisioning process.

If Woolslair is closed and students are reassigned to Pittsburgh Arsenal PreK-5 in Lawrenceville, Ms. Lane said the transition work would have to be “very strong” and improve the whole school. She said one possibility would be to have teachers play a large role in designing the school as was done at Pittsburgh Faison K-5.

Rick Flanagan, Youth Development Center director at the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. which has after-school programs at both Woolslair and Arsenal, called for a broad discussion of the entire Arsenal building, including the middle school grades, with the possibility of creating a K-8 program with a “new vision to it.”

Lauren Byrne, executive director of Lawrenceville United, said the proposal to close Woolslair comes at the same time a coalition of community groups, the East End Partnership, has identified schools as a key issue.

“It’s definitely critical. I think we are a neighborhood not unlike many of the others. We experienced a huge population decrease in families with school-aged children over the last 10 years. We want to attract families, but we also want to keep the families that are here with school-aged children,” she said.

With funding from the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development, Lawrenceville United hired community organizer Dave Breingan in September to help get more parents involved, a task that now includes closing talks.

“We really want this to be parent-driven,” Ms. Byrne said. “We think they’re the real stakeholders here.”

Janet Cercone Scullion, president of the Bloomfield Citizens Council and executive director of Bloomfield Preservation and Heritage Society, believes the closing could be “devastating to the area,” saying, “Why aren’t you talking about growing the enrollment?”

She also noted the historic importance of the building.

Albert M. Tannler, historical collections director of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, said Woolslair is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a city historic structure, and has received a PHLF historic landmark plaque. The architect was Samuel Thornburg McClarren.

Woolslair has a long history as a neighborhood school. It housed a district gifted program from 1986 to June 1996, reopening in fall 1997 as an elementary school.

In 1997, it had 376 students. As recently as 2004-05, its enrollment was 343, more than triple its current enrollment.

It had so many students that at one point its kindergartners were placed in the Arsenal building, about a half mile away.

But enrollment declined since the district in fall 2006 opened a K-5 school at Arsenal, which also houses a middle school.

With the opening of Arsensal PreK-5, the Woolslair kindergarten classes returned to the Woolslair building.

“With the reopening of Arsenal, obviously, the feeder patterns have changed,” Ms. Gallagher said.

“I believe Bloomfield is an older community. People are born, raised and live until they die in Bloomfield,” she said. “There are a lot of young professionals because of Children’s Hospital and West Penn Hospital reopening, but not of school-aged children yet.”

Last school year, Woolslair’s students who are English language learners were moved to Arsenal.

Woolslair’s enrollment this school year fell by 65 students or 37 percent.

Ms. Gallagher said that one reason is some students had chosen Woolslair under the school choice provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Those children have moved on to higher grades, and that type of school choice has been discontinued.

Most students who live in the Woolslair assigned feeder pattern do not attend their assigned school.

According to 2012-13 figures, 235 students lived in the Woolslair feeder pattern and went to a district school but only 93 of them — 40 percent — attended Woolslair.

Of the 377 Woolslair feeder pattern students enrolled in any school, the 93 at Woolslair is only about 25 percent.

In addition to those living in the Woolslair feeder pattern, 71 other students chose Woolslair in 2012-13, including 29 in the Arsenal PreK-5 feeder pattern.

Arsenal PreK-5 also has many students in its feeder pattern going elsewhere. Of the 295 in its feeder pattern and enrolled in district schools, 169 or 57 percent go to Arsenal.

Of the small enrollment at Woolslair, board member Regina Holley said at a board committee meeting, “I want the school district to understand and the public to understand that the school district made this problem.”

She said the closing in 2008 of Pittsburgh Schenley High School in Oakland, which some Woolslair students ultimately attended, discouraged some parents, and the opening of Arsenal PreK-5 in 2006 had an impact.

“I am very disappointed this is happening to those children and those families,” she said.

At the board meeting, Ms. Lane said Arsenal PreK-5 was opened because there were too many students for just Woolslair at the time.

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the district tried to increase enrollment at Woolslair by assigning some of the students from Fort Pitt PreK-5 in Garfield, which closed in 2012.

Jason Nicholas of Bloomfield, parent of two who attend Woolslair, thinks some reasons for enrollment decline are commercialization of the area and, with Children’s Hospital in the area, increased rents beyond what some families can afford.

Mr. Nicholas doesn’t want to see the school close.

“I love the school,” he said.

The proposal to close Woolslair comes despite a resolution passed by city council, which does not control the school district, calling for a school closing moratorium and a task force.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who sponsored the resolution, noted Ms. Lane did not propose a long list of closings.

Ms. Lane did say that more school closings would be “appropriate” and called on the board to develop a process for 2015-16.

The councilwoman is optimistic the city and school district will get together to discuss the issues.

“I want to be very clear. Nobody was saying at the end of the work of the task force, the end of discussions, the end of the public process that no schools would be closed,” Ms. Kail-Smith said.

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

Woolslair - Linda Lane - school closings

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