Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane sees room for growth
Linda Lane, Pittsburgh school superintendent
Second-grader Aundra Payne looks up as superintendent Linda Lane asks him about what he is reading at Pittsburgh Morrow PreK-6 in Brighton Heights.
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This is what Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane thinks is like heaven: a class taught with energy and urgency.
"It is so engaging, so packed in terms of teaching ... intense teaching, teachers using every minute, every second, every opportunity, and when you see that, it's like, oh yeah, this is like heaven, right?
"But I don't always see that."
Now into her third year as superintendent, Ms. Lane, who took office in January 2011, has visited all 54 schools in the district, some of them repeatedly.
"One of the things that jumps out at me is the variability class to class," she said.
In some schools, she said, she sees "some signs of growth."
"However, I still feel we've got a ways to go with that one," she said, adding, "Teaching's tough work."
Increasing student achievement was on the top of Ms. Lane's mind as she discussed her time at the helm in a recent interview.
Accelerating student achievement -- along with eliminating racial disparities and becoming the district of first choice -- is one of the top goals of the district.
"We have to get out of the business of running low-performing schools," she said.
She said some low performers have been closed, but "I do believe that closure is not your No. 1 thing because we know how disruptive that is to neighborhoods and kids and all of that."
Given some schools are "undersized," she said the district "probably" will have to look at school closings again, but she would like to see the district get better at transforming schools.
In the past year, district officials were disappointed by the results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment taken in spring 2012 in math and reading.
Most schools saw their scores drop in reading, math or both, with some experiencing double-digit dips in the percentage of students proficient or advanced on both tests.
In addition, the district had a sizeable achievement gap between black and white students.
Ms. Lane said students this school year are taking more "diagnostic assessments" to figure out exactly what they need.
"If you're working on comprehension and they can't decode, you're wasting their time and yours," said Ms. Lane, noting the diagnostic process is being refined.
While she wishes the district could have put more pieces of the equity plan in place sooner, Ms. Lane said she was "really pleased" the school board approved an equity plan in November.
With the plan, she thinks there is a "heightened sense" of looking at how black students achieve.
"Many of our teachers and principals feel support for doing some things that may be different and, frankly, special for kids who have been chronically underperforming," she said.
Improving performance is a challenge with the cost-cutting moves the district made in 2012 as it tackles a growing deficit.
"I wish our 2012 budget had gotten us a little closer to the full solution than it did. The same thing for the 2013 budget, for that matter, even though ... we made a lot of sacrifices, a lot of reductions, but we still have an uphill climb there," she said.
The district closed seven schools, opened one and had a record number of teacher furloughs last fall. When the 2012-13 school year began, about a third of the previous year's school-based workforce in the city school district had been furloughed, reassigned to a different school, retired or resigned.
Class sizes increased -- not as much as district officials hoped -- but by about two to five students per class on average, depending on the grade level.
Ms. Lane thinks implementing the new education model, which resulted in the larger classes, went "reasonably well," but she said there isn't always the right number of students in a building to optimize class size.
"We still have some undersized schools. That's still a struggle for us because we were not able to actually reduce quite as many teaching positions as we thought we were going to be able to because we can't have a first grade with 35 kids in it. It just simply doesn't work," she said.
Ms. Lane said she feels good that every school has some art, music and library, which wasn't true a year ago.
Compared with the rocky start in fall 2011, when Pittsburgh Westinghouse changed from a high school to a 6-12 school, districtwide changes in fall 2012 went better, with adjustments in classes that were too big being made in the first few weeks of school.
"It was just a lot of work on literally thousands of people, but people pitched in, stuck to it, took care of the details," she said.
Westinghouse has had a lower profile this year, although Ms. Lane finds that "sad."
"Now it's still not the school we want it to be, but because there's no change, there's no controversy," she said.
She said Westinghouse has made progress, but "the academic piece is still not where we need it to be."
Ms. Lane, 63, of Highland Park, said she remains committed to the district. For the second time, she turned down a pay raise, leaving her pay at $200,000 for 2013.
Her contract runs through Jan. 16, 2014, a fact she declined to comment on. The board must notify her at least 150 days before the end of her contract as to whether it is going to reappoint her or seek other candidates.
That puts the decision ahead of the swearing in of any potential new board members in December.
If the board does not act, Ms. Lane is automatically reappointed.
Board president Sharene Shealey declined to comment on the status of Ms. Lane's contract.
But of the past year, Ms. Shealey said, "I think Dr. Lane has provided wonderful leadership in the face of our fiscal issues."
She said Ms. Lane has "led us through some tough decisions that we can be hopeful we'll come out of this OK."
One sign of Ms. Lane's commitment to Pittsburgh is she moved her 90-year-old father, James Bowman, from Des Moines into skilled care in Pittsburgh in September.
Her father was present when Ms. Lane hosted the first State of the District event in September, part of her effort to make more data -- good and bad -- more available to the public.
Ms. Lane -- who spent more than 30 years in Iowa, including becoming deputy superintendent for Des Moines Public Schools -- said, "I'm not a job hopper. ... This is my superintendency. This is it. I'm not planning to do another one."
She called her job "a privilege."
"It's an incredible, incredible opportunity, and I'm still passionate about it. As challenging as it has been -- and I've been very honest about it [being] very challenging -- still I believe it's still the best work in the world."
First Published February 18, 2013 12:00 am