Wilkinsburg’s woes: A troubled district could use Teach for America

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Just when residents of the Wilkinsburg School District thought they had heard everything, they are confronted by more bad news. This latest embarrassment should be the last straw.

In the spring, Wilkinsburg’s financial straits prompted it to borrow $3 million to pay bills, which in turn caused the state Department of Education to put the district on a financial watch list.

Then came revelations about a $15,000 staff retreat at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. Later, it was revealed that the district had spent $470,000 since October 2010 on two consultants from an unaccredited, online university in Louisiana — under a no-bid contract.

Can it get any worse? Sadly, it can. As the Post-Gazette’s Mary Niederberger reported Thursday, students enrolled in chemistry class at Wilkinsburg High School are being taught by an art teacher. A health and physical education instructor is teaching the students in French classes. Sacre bleu!

The reconstituted school board, with four new members, discussed the teacher shortages on Dec. 17. But the art teacher teaching chemistry and the phys-ed teacher teaching French came as belated and unwelcome news to board President Edward J. Donovan. Administrators failed to mention these details.

The board did vote to hire a substitute French teacher but, according to Mr. Donovan, he and the board found out only later that this person — a former Penn Hills High School administrator whose name was not made public at the meeting — was disciplined in 2010 after allegations that she used a racial slur to refer to a student.

In the case of the phys-ed French teacher, a certified substitute French teacher was in the classroom before quitting in November. To fill the slot, the teachers contract required the district to recall a furloughed teacher, regardless of qualifications. This, of course, is absurd.

Wilkinsburg has a shrinking tax base that makes life difficult in the best of times, but the folly of its administrators has made matters worse — and at the expense of students. Earlier this month, the state released the high school’s performance profile, the lowest of any school in Allegheny County and the 17th lowest in the commonwealth.

There is a glimmer of hope and it abides with the new school board. Long term, the best remedy is a merger with the neighboring Pittsburgh School District, but that may not be politically feasible.

For now, we suggest seeking foundation help. Got a teacher shortage and not much to spend? With a little outside funding, why not hire Teach for America instructors, perhaps the very ones the Pittsburgh School Board unwisely rejected?

In Wilkinsburg, where an art teacher teaches chemistry, the argument against using “unqualified” Teach for America trainees doesn’t fly. As a bonus, this move would provide a good local test of how Teach for America would really perform.

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