Academy at Westinghouse faculty pitches school in area of 'broken' promises
Muzz Meyers from Communities in Schools sits at the welcome table to talk with parents outside the Academy at Westinghouse.
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School may not start until tomorrow , but staff from the new Academy at Westinghouse have been at work educating the Homewood community for weeks.
Throughout August, teachers and administrators have tried to ease parental concerns about the cascade of change that has transformed the former Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School into two single-gender, six-12 academies. Teachers have hit the pavement, traveling door-to-door in teams to meet families, and several spent an afternoon fielding questions and introducing themselves to parents and kids at a community block party at Westinghouse Aug. 13.
But these efforts aren't all about making it easy on parents. Staff have used their conversations with families to recruit for extensive volunteer projects designed to increase community investment in the school -- and Westinghouse's shot at success.
"We're trying to build the understanding that if we're all working for the same goal for the school, families, the community and our children, we'll get there that much faster," Westinghouse principal Kellie Abbott said. "As schools, we always sort of talk that game. But the difference here is we're creating systems and expectations for how that will happen."
The school also used a meeting intended to allow parents to fill out schedules as a de facto information session. Staff took more questions from families on the school's new bell-less schedule and mandatory uniforms, as well as from community members curious about what the "full-service community school" and the new Homewood Children's Village really mean for Homewood.
"People may be skeptical because we're promising quite a bit, and this is an area where promises have been made and broken," said the Rev. John Wallace, president of the board of directors for Children's Village.
The facility, which will operate within Westinghouse, is designed to be a full-service community center in the vein of the Harlem Children's Zone and will eventually offer medical, family and mental health services.
Staff from the Homewood Children's Village sponsored the block party at Westinghouse in partnership with the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
About 530 parents, children and teachers mingled and discussed uniform samples from Target. Students and siblings danced to hip-hop and R&B music and lunched on free hot dogs and hamburgers grilled by Derrick Lopez, the president of the Homewood Children's Village.
Mr. Lopez was pleased to see parents registering their families in droves for raffle tickets and free meal vouchers in front of the school, even if the food orders came in faster than he and his fellow volunteers could flip.
Through October, a team of five interns from the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work will reach out to the families who didn't attend the block party -- and didn't appear on Mr. Lopez's registration list -- and encourage them to get involved with the Academy and the Homewood Children's Village.
"If you help people develop a relationship, give them a role they can play and engage them in an activity, they will stay with you," Mr. Lopez said.
That was the hope for 27 Westinghouse teachers who went door-to-door this month to introduce themselves and field questions from families in Homewood, East Liberty, Larimer and other neighborhoods sending children to Westinghouse.
Kristin Karl, who will teach social studies to girls in the sixth through eighth grades, visited Homewood parents to distribute information about volunteer opportunities at the school, which will place parents in offices, classrooms and even streets surrounding the school during the first six weeks of the academic year.
"All of the parents we talked to seemed very positive and interested in Westinghouse in general," she said. "The attitude seems to be, 'Since it's going to happen, we should make the best of it.' "
But until next month, no child is completely committed to Westinghouse.
Faced with arguments over the legality of forcing children to attend single-gender academies, the Pittsburgh Public Schools decided to give parents the ability to transfer their students elsewhere during the first 30 days of the school year if they are not satisfied with Westinghouse. To avoid a drop in enrollment, staff spent August working to spark parents' interest in the school.
Ionie Baker said four teachers dropped by his Homewood residence this month to discuss Westinghouse's grade levels and uniform code. It was a welcome visit, he said, and it made him feel like the school district cares about the success of his 16-year-old daughter, Joenay.
Before Mr. Baker left the block party, he made sure to check in with Joenay's former math teacher from Westinghouse High School. As the two chatted about Joenay's schedule for the coming year, Mr. Baker offered to drop by the classroom with his wife to volunteer.
Westinghouse High School has graduated more than a dozen of Mr. Baker's aunts and uncles. Though he said it's "heart-wrenching" to see the school change now that his daughter is about to begin her junior year there, Mr. Baker believes the district is doing the right thing.
"You have to change with the times," he said. "You know it's for the good of the children."
Joenay said the school's move to single-gender academies won't be especially beneficial to her, but she said she can see how the system might help other students.
Of greater concern to her is the rivalry between Westinghouse and Pittsburgh Peabody High School, which will close this fall and send many of its students to Westinghouse. Joenay said school administrators have severely underestimated the ill will between the two schools.
"They really don't know how bad the fighting is. There is a lot of conflict between them, and this will just create more," Joenay said.
Westinghouse teachers said they are hoping to head off such fighting by filling the campus and surrounding streets with community volunteers during the first weeks of the term and engaging students in icebreaker activities at the classroom level.
Tonica Prentiss-Stringer said the school's advocacy of community-based reform in Homewood appeals to her, as does Westinghouse's request that parents and community members volunteer.
"I should be able to come in as a neighbor, as a taxpayer, as a parent with a child enrolled in a community school, and say, 'Don't fight,' " she said. "We all have to live together and go to school together. Let's make the community look good."
Ms. Prentiss-Stringer wasn't always so enthusiastic about the district's plans for Westinghouse.
At first, a single-gender academy didn't seem like a good fit for her 16-year-old daughter, Andia Prentiss, who said she doesn't get along well with other girls. Ms. Prentiss-Stringer said she considered enrolling her daughter in online classes for her junior year of high school.
But when she considered what example that might set for Andia, Ms. Prentiss-Stringer hesitated.
"I want to show my daughter to adapt to change," Ms. Prentiss-Stringer said. "If I don't think it's going to work, why would she?"
She decided to keep Andia at Westinghouse for her junior year, and has signed up to volunteer in the school's office to increase her daughter's stake in the school.
For her part, Andia is looking forward to smaller class sizes, which she thinks will help her toward her goal of becoming a medical examiner.
"I'm excited to have a good school here," she said.
First Published August 21, 2011 12:00 am