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Pittsburgh Schools, Pitt 're-examining' relationship at University Prep School

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Officials with Pittsburgh Public Schools and the University of Pittsburgh will be "re-examining" their partnership at the district's University Prep School in the coming weeks.

Troubled by poor test scores and the potential for overcrowded hallways next year, officials are trying to address mounting problems at the Hill District school. While neither Pitt nor district officials would specifically outline what the issues are, both sides agree conditions at the school need to get better.

"We're in the midst of re-examining our relationship" with U Prep, says Dr. Alan Lesgold, dean of Pitt's School of Education. "We're not doing as well as we need to."

Opened in fall 2008, U Prep was considered the district's first significant move in its sweeping high-school reform initiative. The grade 6-12 school, which currently enrolls about 500 students at the former Milliones Middle School building, was touted by district officials as a flagship program built around a strong partnership with the University of Pittsburgh.

Housed inside the Milliones building, Lesgold says Pitt's Center for Urban Education offers professional development for teachers at the school. In addition, he says, the university runs an after-school program for U Prep students who have fallen behind academically. 

But Pitt's partnership with the school may be different come the fall. While Lesgold declined to specify how their relationship could change, he says university and district officials will meet to discuss the partnership in the next few weeks.

Those discussions, according to Pittsburgh Schools Superintendent Linda Lane, will be focused primarily on resolving "communication issues" between the district and Pitt. "I liken this [partnership] to a marriage," she says. "Partners can make some decisions when they probably should have consulted with their partner before they did it."

Lane declined to say specifically what has strained the relationship, but she says the district takes the blame. "We own that on the district side," she says. 

If the district and the university can't resolve their problems, Lane adds, "then shame on us."

Lesgold says it's "highly unlikely" that Pitt will walk away from U Prep. "If we're going to be serious about urban education, we have to take on the hard stuff," he says. "We're not going to walk away from it."

U Prep certainly needs the help.

"The challenges of the school are substantial," says Lesgold. "Look at the test scores."

Indeed, U Prep's 2010 state test scores were dismal. According to results from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, just 25 percent of U Prep's sixth-grade students scored proficient/advanced in reading, compared to 53 percent of students district-wide. And while 59 percent of the district's eighth-grade students scored at least proficient in math, only 23 percent of the Hill District school's eighth graders hit that mark. 

Some worry the district could soon exacerbate such poor scores. Last year, the school board approved a plan to turn Westinghouse High School, in Homewood, into two single-gender academies serving grades 6-12 in the fall. But because the district is prohibited from forcing students to enroll in single-gender schools, it must offer students a default school -- which, in this case, is U Prep. 

If a large number of parents decide that they would prefer their children enroll in U Prep, rather than in one of the single-gender academies, some wonder whether classrooms at the Hill District school could overcrowd. 

Given such concerns, education advocates say it's crucial that the district resolve its issues with Pitt.

"The community really values that university partnership," says Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an independent community advocate for improving public education. "Hopefully, [the district] will figure out what they can do to keep them there."

"We are hoping that the relationship will continue," agrees Rev. Johnny Monroe, co-chair of the Hill District Education Council. "I think that students at U Prep, staff and the community can benefit from what the University of Pittsburgh has to offer.

"Whatever is broken" in the school's relationship with Pitt, he adds, "I hope it can be fixed."

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