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Class Remiss

Educators and watchdogs shout about sliding school performance

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On the same day Pennsylvania released a report labeling 169 Allegheny County schools as deficient on some part of the state's standardized testing -- or as so deplorable the kids deserve a free pass out of them -- a slew of local government officials gathered at the Hill House to face the issue.

At the Pennsylvania Public Education Partnership's "Capacity Building Forum," school-board members Randall Taylor and Mark Brentley, state Reps. Jake Wheatley and Joe Preston, City Councilor Sala Udin and representatives from the Urban League and the Hill House Association all seemed to be embroiled in an anger-management session more than anything else.

"We have to get more angry about the plight of our kids," said Wheatley. "There ought to be a concerted effort from parents in expressing their anger, but they have to be angry about their role in this as well."

"We ought to be tearing out our hair" instead of acting "too cool and too polite about frightening indications about kids performing under proficiency," said Udin.

Most of the crowd of 50 were also angry, but as Wheatley pointed out, they were not parents or teachers in the school district. Most were members of various community groups or representatives of the dozen organizations included in the Capacity Building Project Partners.

While many in the group called for improving the quality of teachers and greater accountability among parents, Taylor said he didn't trust the standardized Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests used to determine 5th, 8th and 11th grade proficiency in reading and math. While acknowledging "we do still have problems," Taylor said, "I don't believe in the PSSAs or any standardized tests" because they "are designed by people hostile to public education."

Test results, noted Wheatley, still affect how resources are allocated. "If [education] is the biggest issue" in people's minds, he said, "I'm not hearing that from the community. People come through my doors, make phone calls and e-mail, talking about mass transit, cuts in drug and alcohol programs & but [they don't] talk about the education of their kids."

Chenitts Pettigrew, program director for a youth mentoring program, Urban Youth Action, added that black students couldn't "see themselves in the curriculum or how it relates to their lives." As Udin pointed out, a study by University of Pittsburgh Africana Studies Professor Jerome Taylor found that most black parents locally believe that blacks in general are "physically gifted but intellectually inferior. So children come to school thinking learning is jive, or even if they're smart they have to dumb down. They believe it's more important to fight -- physically gifted -- than it is to learn." Udin urged the group to look into "cultural solutions instead of academic ones."

Brentley and Taylor said they would relay all the suggestions to the school board -- including the idea of freeing up money the district isn't using and passing it to parents in exchange for more cooperation with the schools. The "Classroom Plus" program of the state Department of Education, for instance, reimburses parents up to $500 if they seek training to become an in-class tutor. Pitt Academic Support Center Director Ron Brown noted this amount isn't enough to cover all the training required -- and that not many parents have $500 to begin with.

Before Pettigrew, a member of the rap group Liberation, performed for the forum, he told the crowd: "We have more PhDs, MDs, MSWs and college grads than ever before in our history, yet our communities are in shambles [and] black kids make up the bulk of those [poor standardized test results] statistics. Pennsylvania is building its first private prison. Will those kids be the ones in that prison? I guarantee they will."

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