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Education: District's new University Partnership school still not finalized

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Less than five months before classes start at the Pittsburgh School District's new university-partnership school in the Hill District, one important aspect of the school is missing: a university partnership.

District and University of Pittsburgh officials have been working together informally for months, determining what university personnel the school will need and who will fill specific positions within the building. But they have yet to finalize an official alliance with a signed agreement.

"There's a common set of goals," says Dr. Alan Lesgold, dean of Pitt's School of Education. "There will come a natural moment for formalizing something."

Considering the school, which district officials plan to open in August, is already accepting applications, some say the district is fast approaching that "natural moment" for an official agreement.

"They need to formalize it and get community buy-in," says school-board member Mark Brentley Sr.

About 150 ninth-graders will attend the new school, located in the Hill District's former Milliones Middle School building. In the following years, it will expand into a grade 6-12, citywide magnet. Roughly two-thirds of the school's enrollment will be filled by current eighth-graders who would otherwise be going to Schenley High School, which is closing at the end of the year. Until May 16, the district is accepting applications from students citywide, with preference given to those who live in the Hill District.

Without an official partnership, Brentley says touting the new school as a university partnership is misleading.

"It causes concern," says Brentley, an outspoken critic of Superintendent Mark Roosevelt's administration. "It's always the hype, the PR, the propaganda."

Millions of dollars have already been spent rehabbing the Milliones facility in preparation for its opening. Just last month the school board approved an increase in the cost of the district's existing contract with an architectural firm from $200,000 to more than $1 million to complete work at the Hill District school.

Hypothetically speaking, if a university partnership were to fall apart after his child applied and committed to the school, Brentley says, "I would immediately pull my child out."

Cate Reed, project manager for the university-partnership school, says that won't be necessary.

"We're finalizing what the specifics of [the partnership] will be," she says. "We're in the nuts and bolts right now."

Reed says they are trying to establish concrete responsibilities for the district and the university.

According to Lesgold, Pitt wants to locate its Center for Urban Education inside the Milliones building. Reed says the accommodations for that move have already been made.

"Is that formal enough for you?" she jokes.

According to Lesgold, the district and Pitt have already discussed sending teaching interns and other student volunteers to help tutor high schoolers in the building. Currently, he says, they are searching for someone to serve as the chair of the Center for Urban Education.

"The partnership is real. It's happening," says Lesgold. "We're committed to having a significant presence in the school."

Lesgold downplays any concern that a formal agreement between the university and the district has yet to be completed, but he doesn't deny that a legal agreement is crucial.

"I think our lawyers and the district's lawyers are worrying about that a lot," he says. "[The District and the university] have the same goals, but sometimes you find that things have to be formalized."

"You have to have some kind of formal agreement when you're dealing with something like this," agrees district solicitor Ira Weiss. "Everyone has to know what the roles of the university and the district are."

Weiss says he's waiting to receive the specifics of the deal from district officials, so that he can eventually meet with the university's lawyers to sign off on the agreement.

"It'll be done," he says, adding that he'd like to have the particulars of the deal within the next 30-45 days. "It takes some time to get the papers through the various channels."

Other measures have been taken to make sure the new school is ready to open in the fall. Dr. Sito Narcisse, former assistant principal at Woodland Hills High School, was just recently hired by Pittsburgh School District to serve as the university-partnership school's principal.

Reed and Lesgold both agree that Narcisse, whose yearly salary is about $98,000, is a great candidate for the position, especially since he's familiar with university-partnership models. In fact, according to his resume, the dissertation Narcisse wrote while studying at Pitt focused on school partnerships.

"That inspires confidence that [the district] is going to cross their T's and dot their I's on this agreement," says Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an independent community advocate for improving public education.

School board member Jean Fink shares Harris' optimism.

"I don't really doubt that they will [partner]," she says. "The superintendent must feel pretty confident, or we wouldn't have taken the measures to open the school."

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