Pittsburgh school board agrees to contract with Teach for America, start process of closing Woolslair

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In the final voting meeting before four new board members are sworn in, the Pittsburgh Public Schools board tonight agreed to contract with Teach for America and to start the process of closing Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5 on the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville border.

The 6-3 votes were contentious, taken after failed attempts to table and with board member Mark Brentley Sr. voting in favor of Teach for America even though he is opposed so that he can bring the matter up at a later meeting. School solicitor Ira Weiss said that a new board member or anyone who voted on the prevailing side could bring it up again.

About a 20 protestors interrupted the meeting just before the vote was taken, some with ducks calls in reference to the lame duck members.

Voting in favor of Teach for America were Mr. Brentley, Theresa Colaizzi, Sherry Hazuda, Bill Isler, Floyd "Skip" McCrea and Sharene Shealey. Opposed were board members Jean Fink, Regina Holley and Tom Sumpter.

On the Woolslair item, Ms. Colaizzi, Ms. Fink, Ms. Hazuda, Mr. Isler, Mr. McCrea and Ms. Shealey voted in favor, with Mr. Brentley, Ms. Holley and Mr. Sumpter opposed.

Teach for America is the district’s first foray into alternative certification. School superintendent Linda Lane said Teach for America candidates could be hired for up to 30 vacancies next fall, including hard-to-fill positions in the sciences. Ms. Lane said that Teach for America has more diversity in its candidate pool than the district’s does and its teachers are passionate about urban students.

The district will spend up to $750,000 on Teach for America fees over three years, a cost the will be covered by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The fee is $5,000 per teacher. The district will pay the salaries of the new teachers, who will be union members.

In a highly competitive process, Teach for America recruits and screens college graduates, typically without education training, and gives them five weeks of training at a national institute and some local orientation and professional development. It also provides coaching for the TFA teachers, known as corps members. The candidates make a two-year commitment.

At the meeting, Ms. Lane said some city schools have "virtually no one who applies to transfer" and gets the teachers no other principal will take.

"I'm personally tired of hearing high school students say to me the teacher told me, 'I don't want to be here.'"

Mr. Brentley considers Teach for America "an attempt to break organized labor."

Ms. Holley called the Teach for America candidates "microwave teachers" and said she was "very disturbed" such teachers would be sent difficult schools, saying the districts was experimenting on students.

Ms. Fink was she wasn't keen on Teach for America, saying even the brightest math graduate may not have the skills to teach students.

Ms. Colaizzi praised the track record of Teach for America. She noted her own son had lacked a permanent chemistry teacher. She said the No, 1 complaint she hears from parents is the lack of a qualified teacher.

Ms. Hazuda said she thinks Teach for America will give principals one more tool to fill positions.

Ms. Isler said he thinks Teach for America will help children.

Ms. Shealey noted the program receives many applications from historically black colleges and universities, thus offering a more diverse pool. She said some schools have few applicants.She said she supports the chance for a broader pool of candidates and to have a teacher with content knowledge who wants to be there.

Mr. Sumpter wondered if a scaled-down version of the district's abandoned Teacher Academy, which would have trained new teachers, could work. He urged fellow members to table the motion. "More information is still coming out tonight," he said.

Mr. Brentley tried to table the motion before there was any discussion but did not get a second. After discussion, Mr. Sumpter moved to table the matter but was defeated on a 4-5 vote.

The vote on Woolslair triggers a process of public comment and a public hearing that could culminate in a vote no earlier than March 26.

Some board members emphasized the Woolslair vote is not a vote to close the school but rather one to start a process.

"This is about allowing the public the opportunity to discuss it," Ms. Colaizz said.

"This is not a vote to close a school. It begins a process," Mr. Isler said.

Mr. Brentley said the first step in closing Woolslair is this item.

Ms. Holley, who does not want to close Woolslair, blamed its low enrollment on the district's changing of feeder patterns and opening of Pittsburgh Arsenal PreK-5, about a half mile away.

Mr. Sumpter said a school closing has "ripple effect" and wanted to know the broader effects. Once the process starts, he said, some families are going to say, "I need to get out now."

Built in 1897, Woolslair is one of the district’s oldest schools and this school year has 110 students, the smallest enrollment in the district. District officials estimate closing Woolslair could save $650,000 to $950,000 annually.

Ms. Lane wants to assign the Woolslair students to Pittsburgh Arsenal PreK-5.

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

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