Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12 school regroups after single-gender plan is scrapped
The image of the first day of school at the new Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood still sticks in one teacher's mind.
"I think the first day in August was so beautiful. They came in their uniforms. You could see the expectations that things were going to be different. We're really going to focus on our learning," she said.
But on Aug. 22 -- opening day of the new offerings of single-gender classes -- the school wasn't ready. There wasn't a complete master class schedule. The curriculum wasn't ready for the new trimesters and block scheduling, which had 80-minute periods. The school didn't even have a formal name.
Over the next two weeks, some students waited for regular schedules, some assigned for hours to classrooms with teachers who also didn't have a regular schedule.
Discipline deteriorated, with too many students in hallways during class time and fights.
"They put you in classes you didn't need or took the year before. There were a lot of fights. Nobody hardly was in class. They didn't enforce being in class. You could just hang in the halls," Westinghouse junior Tauttiona Green said.
"I think the kids were deeply disappointed," the teacher said. "The kids just lost faith."
This academic year, the school was to be transformed from a low-achieving high school to a new school -- called the Academy at Westinghouse during planning -- that would foster high achievement for grades 6-12, offer single-gender classes, provide extra instructional time and operate on a trimester schedule different than the rest of the district.
But after a rocky start, Westinghouse begin to retrench.
In early October, the new trimesters were replaced with the district's standard semesters, and 80-minute periods were replaced with 44-minute periods, necessitating new schedules for all students. The school board later that month passed a resolution that the school's formal name was to be George Westinghouse Academy, which "for communications purposes" is known as Pittsburgh Westinghouse.
In November, in an acknowledgement by district officials that the school was failing its students terribly, the building's two co-principals were placed on administrative leave, and a new acting principal was brought in. Single-gender classes were discontinued after a threatened lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, and, while boys earlier were separated from girls, middle school students were separated from high school students for most of the day.
As a result, students received yet another class schedule on Nov. 28.
Enrollment, which is 98 percent African-American, fell from 622 at the end of September to 531 at the end of January.
As Westinghouse begins its second semester, superintendent Linda Lane said the school is doing better.
"Is it where we want it to be? Not yet. Have we turned a corner? Not yet. Key things have been resolved," she said, noting halls are clear during class, and parents' phone calls to the school are to be returned within 24 hours.
"I take responsibility. I am sorry it wasn't what we wanted it to be," said Ms. Lane, who will be at the 6 p.m. Feb. 16 meeting of the Parent School Community Council at Westinghouse.
School board member Sharene Shealey, whose district includes Westinghouse, said the start to the school year was "just totally disappointing," but she believes the school now is "heading in a better direction."
Across the nation, school districts have found turning around low-achieving schools a tough task.
The plan for Westinghouse required doing a lot of things well at once.
"It was just too much," said Ms. Shealey.
The school also added middle school grades to what had been a high school, combined students from four schools, increased the enrollment from the 315 the high school held and brought in 53 teachers and other professional staff members, only five of whom had taught at Westinghouse the previous school year.
Westinghouse faced these challenges after a shorter summer than the district's other secondary schools, opening about two weeks earlier than most other schools, and was among the first in the district to use a new computer program for scheduling.
Unlike other 6-12 schools the district started by phasing in grade levels year by year, Westinghouse started with all seven grade levels, at least in part because the financially strapped district couldn't afford a phased-in approach any more.
Jean Fink, a school board member for more than 30 years, said, "There are so many possibilities as to how that got messed up. We could speculate for hours and still not cover them all."
But Ms. Fink said the lesson is this: "When you want to make a change that drastic, you'd better plan it out better."
Ms. Lane believes Shemeca Crenshaw, who previously had headed Westinghouse and became acting principal Nov. 14, is making some "important and significant changes."
Homewood resident Kiva Fisher-Green, parent of two Westinghouse students, including Tauttiona, said, "Since Dr. Crenshaw got there, it's 200 percent better than it was. I just hope that pretty much [district officials] give her the support and resources she needs."
Westinghouse senior LaMont Nicholson said, "I used to be depressed coming to school. ... It's going much better now. We have a curriculum."
Westinghouse senior Simone Deakings, who described the school as "out of control" at the beginning of the school year, said, "Dr. Crenshaw came in and enforced rules."
Ms. Crenshaw took students who were chronic problems before District Judge Kevin Cooper, where they were fined, given community service or made to write essays. By the end of January, 194 suspensions had been issued to 155 students since Ms. Crenshaw arrived. Coupled with the 165 suspensions to 146 students before her arrival, 301 students have been suspended at least once this school year.
Ms. Crenshaw estimated that when she arrived she was receiving each day about 60 referrals of students to the office, some for offenses as small as using a cell phone. She said the number has dropped to 20 to 30.
Academically, Ms. Crenshaw said she believes teachers have covered the material needed for the first semester, although some lessons may have been condensed, not as in-depth and without culminating projects. She hopes to have a program in the summer to make sure students are "solid" in the fall.
Part of the plan had been to staff the new Westinghouse with teachers who were handpicked and wanted to be in the school. Of the 53 professional staff members, 19 were placed there involuntarily, at least some because they were displaced by various school closings. Since the start of the school year, the professional staff has increased to 59.
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said teachers are determined to make it work.
"I know the teachers there. They're good teachers. ... The problems at Westinghouse have not in any way been the teachers," she said.
The two co-principals who opened the school -- Shawn McNeil, previously principal at the old Westinghouse, and Kellie Abbott, previously principal at the closed Pittsburgh Peabody High School -- were placed on administrative leave.
In addition to principal changes, Heath Bailey, a principal on special assignment, went on leave Sept. 27 and resigned Nov. 7. Brandon George became acting assistant principal on Nov. 14 and went on leave Dec. 21. Another acting assistant principal, Anthony Varlotta, is scheduled to start Monday.
Westinghouse has been provided with extra resources.
It received a $2.5 million federal School Improvement Grant for 2010-2013 to help pay for extended day and summer instruction, a curriculum coordinator, communications with families, student assistance services and other items.
About $1.1 million was spent on building improvements for the new school.
Westinghouse also has partnerships with about 20 community and social service groups.
The Homewood Children's Village, for example, provides 27 people to Westinghouse, according to Derrick Lopez, village president and CEO.
Westinghouse now is working on a plan for the coming year.
One plan that won't be considered is reviving the single-gender classes.
Not enough students chose the single-gender program, and the ACLU challenged the district's decision to assign students to the school and then let them opt out, arguing the program still didn't meet the legal prohibition of assigning students. After a threatened lawsuit, the district agreed to discontinue the single-gender classes by Feb. 1.
Some community members -- Westinghouse has a vocal alumni association -- and board member Mark Brentley Sr. repeatedly had called on the school board to delay the single-gender academy's opening a year, questioning whether it was ready. Regina Holley, who joined the school board in December and favored a delay, said the board didn't listen to parents.
Ms. Lane repeatedly has said making changes couldn't wait. A chronically low-performing school "cries out for action," she said last week.
On state tests given in 11th grade last year, only 8.1 percent of students at Westinghouse were proficient or advanced in math and 27.4 percent in reading.
"Is it safer maybe to just kind of let it not do anything? Probably. ... How can you feel good about the fact when you know that kids aren't being served in a way they should? As I said, sometimes you're compelled to act," she said.
Ms. Shealey said Westinghouse students "haven't been served appropriately in years."
Tauttiona plans to return to Westinghouse for her senior year and intends to do well enough to qualify for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarships.
She said Westinghouse can be better, but "we're on the road to where it needs to be."
First Published February 5, 2012 12:00 am