If high school reform is the test, Pittsburgh School District administrators are the students and the community is ... the tutor?
Maybe that's a stretch, but administrators say community input was the main reason the district decided to delay implementing some reform proposals.
Originally, school-board members were expected to vote on Schenley High School's fate, and that of its students, on Feb 27. While the school board is still slated to vote on plans to take students out of the asbestos-riddled building, at a Jan. 29 board workshop, Superintendent Mark Roosevelt put his plans for the building on hold, in order to more fully evaluate options for the historic structure. Also put on a slower track for the time being: plans to restructure middle and elementary schools in the Hill District, and to create controversial consolidated high schools housing grades 6-12.
"We needed to address the concerns of the community," says chief of high school feform Derrick Lopez. "With more input, the plans become better."
Although Lopez says he can't say whether he likes the new plans better than the old ones, "I'm more comfortable that we're meeting the needs of the children," he says. "We're making sure we have the capacity to deliver what we promise."
Roosevelt told board members at the workshop that postponing the vote on Schenley was necessary because, "By February, we won't feel that every option has been explored."
Still, he added, exploring doesn't mean restoring. "I don't want to mislead people or give false hopes," he said. "We're not saying that Schenley will be remediated. We think [Schenley] merits a couple of more months of evaluations."
But as for reassigning Schenley's students, he added, "We absolutely cannot wait any longer." Recommendations for Schenley's current population, unlike those for the building, have not changed. Next year, students currently in grades 9-11 will still move to the Reizenstein building, in East Liberty, where they will eventually graduate with Schenley diplomas.
Pittsburgh school officials have been discussing reforms since November, but some praised the delay.
"Delaying the vote is us hearing the voices of the community," said school-board member Heather Arnet.
Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an independent community advocate for improving public education, agrees. "It makes a lot of sense to give everyone a little breathing room to figure out what to do with Schenley," she says.
The bulk of the district's other changes are centered in the Hill District, in an attempt to ease students into the new "university-partnership" school at the former Milliones Middle School, as well as to postpone significant changes for two of the neighborhood's K-8 schools, Miller and Vann.
Previously, the district planned to open the university-partnership school with grades 6-9 next year, incorporating Schenley's mainstream population with students from Miller and Vann middle schools. While the goal is still to create a 6-12 school in the Milliones building, the process will be rolled out more slowly. Roosevelt is now seeking to put only next year's freshman class into the building.
"Ninth-graders will be the sole focus of the school," Lopez says. "It's best to grow schools from small to large."
Miller, which under previous plans was expected to become a K-5 next year, now will remain a K-8 until the start of the 2009-10 school year. The 6-8 students will then move to Milliones, and Miller will revert to a K-5.
"We're hoping to stabilize the lives of our children," says Lopez, answering the concerns of some parents that the administration's previous plans would have changed Miller's configuration for the second time in two years.
As for Vann, which was previously slated to close next year, the district is now recommending that it remain K-8 until the 2009-10 school year. After that, its grades 6-8 students can choose to move to either Milliones or to Weil, another Hill District K-8. Vann's elementary-level students can also choose between Miller or Weil.
Roosevelt's new recommendations are much the same as his original proposals (the whole plan will still cost about $50 million); for the most part, only the timetable has changed. But some seem happy that the district is looking to slow down the pace of its reforms.
"I like this plan a lot better," board member Sherry Hazuda said at the workshop. "I like the idea of the gradual change."
"The less dramatic changes should be easier for students," agrees Harris. "Better to do it well than to do it fast."