Monday, November 26, 2007

Battle Lines: Drawn

The forces arrayed to save Schenley High School will be in Squirrel Hill today at 3:00 PM on the corner of Forbes and Murray, distributing literature and rousing rabble.

If the Shire seems like an odd place to agitate for Schenley, that's because the movement is not about saving Schenley, they say, but about high school reform.

One theme of the movement is, "High School Reform: Coming Soon to a School Near You," and the object is to raise awareness amongst the Allderdice community, for example, that it may be next to suffer at the tender mercies of Mark Roosevelt for the Greater Good.

On the other hand, as much as they want to avoid the Save Schenley label, they also do not want to be known as the Down With Roosevelt organization, or the Obstruct High School Reform lobby. The need for reform and improved results is acknowledged, but they want it done differently and more methodically, with greater public involvement. So it's a bit of a balancing act.

Hence the working title, Informed Reform (under construction).


What's not to like about the intended regime of high school reform?

To hear the movementarians tell it, the decisions are driven exclusively by economics and excess capacity issues, not by any real attempts to improve student performance; the decisions are made by politicians and attorneys (like Superintendent Roosevelt himself), not by actual teachers and educators (of which even A+ Schools has a dearth these days); and the decisions are made too swiftly and too often in executive session or on retreat.

Instead of outsourcing the business of designing syllabi and importing pre-fab coursework for district-wide standardization, many in the new movement would rather concentrate on home-grown, more ambitious reforms that they say have been proven to increase student performance -- starting the school day later, for example, and providing a fresh breakfast provided by the USDA.

Finally, and we think most importantly, there is deep uneasiness about the direction of the proposed reforms. They see a future in which the career-track high schools like those for the Performing Arts, Science and Technology, and Computer Science pluck all the high-achieving students starting in 6th grade, in turn gobbling all the resources and attention of the district -- leaving the other students to muddle through basically for themselves.

It is this regressive vision of "gymnasiums and lyceums" that has many up in arms.


There is a Special Hearing of the School Board on Schenley tomorrow evening; there is a rally planned beforehand and maybe a hundred speakers scheduled to speak.

We anticipate that first there will be some debate about how this hearing is about the Schenley situation -- and there is another time and a place to talk about High School Reform. This is going to be a sticky wicket, since the closure of Schenley is intertwined with moving the reform agenda.

There will certainly be debate of how high school reform has been in motion for three years already; how all the information has been available to anyone who cares to find it, and how resources have already been allocated and the work of the school district must Move Forward.

(A source even insisted to the Comet that the reforms have been "telegraphed" for some time; this obviously begs the question of who is equipped to receive such signals and how.)

This will usher in the debate about how information is shared or not shared amongst the general public. There is certainly a lot of data on the Pittsburgh Public Schools website tracking the School Board's instruction to Roosevelt, and Roosevelt's proposals to the Board -- but it seems to be done in year-by-year snapshots. The suspicion of the new movement is that there is clearly a broad, five-or-ten year plan at work, and vision that has never been adequately spelled out to the constituents.

After much careful study, the Comet continues to have No Idea who is in the right on that score. The Board et all will reply that the info has been available forever; people just don't pay attention until their own school is affected. By then it is honestly too late to go back and unearth three or more years of work and research.

By this measure, although the plaster and asbestos situation at Schenley was seized upon as an opportunity by Roosevelt et all to hasten certain changes, the move may actually have worked against them -- it was dramatic enough to engage and enrage a community that was supposed to awaken to reform more slowly.

This brings us to yet another debate: the degree of danger and immediacy the Schenley situation poses -- both to student's health and welfare, and to the financial well-being of the district. The School Board et all will be stressing their proposals as outright necessities, and the movementarians will have their hands full trying to dampen the mood of emergency.

Finally, a debate will ensue as to whether or not Roosevelt is part of the problem or part of the solution, and whether or not Board Members that are perceived as "rubber stamps for the superintendent" are acting in the best interests of the children.

As the Comet's stated position outlines, there is still an opportunity for compromise -- saving Schenley as part of high school reform, and as a counterweight to some of its less savory overtones, and as a way to purchase some sorely-needed community buy-in to the larger plan already.

However, both sides would need to be willing to compromise. As it stands, the Informed Reform movement has received the message loud and clear that love him or hate him, Roosevelt takes direction from the School Board -- and the School Board is where to apply pressure. As instructed, they are looking to the School Board elections of 2009 in a very deliberate manner.


  1. The issue of high school reform is something that is going on all across the United States, especially in the country's urban school districts. Both the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation have it as major initiatives. (I realize many view both foundations as negatives to public education, but the reality of it is that both of these organizations have and want to pump money into education that states are either unable or unwilling to do.) The National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislators have made it a focus, as well.

    In addition, tons of information on both sides of the argument for high school reform exists, but as a society, we've become very used to being spoon fed information and may have become lazy in our abilities to research it on our own.

    Now that I am currently living in the city (Portland, OR) that prides itself in community discourse and involvement, I would caution folks about going too far. Public involvement is a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing when there are no limits set. Then you get the whole "who decides" dilemma. Who decide how many public hearing, what type of input, how long, will there be a cut off, and on and on. People in Portland like to say everyone gets a say -- even the family dog. What I've seen happen, though, is that very little progess gets made (and this is a city that touts itself as very progressive). I know when I lived in Pittsburgh I hoped for more community involvement, but now that I'm living in it, I'm not so sure it's all it's cracked up to be. (I am not advocating that local governments/public entities retreat even more into the extremely closed-door operations of the past -- just recommending caution.)

    I've also seen, at least in the education arena, that the people who are most vested (administrators, teachers, parents) are the least willing to compromise and despite the rhetoric, often don't want to because everyone is an "expert" on education by virtue of either being a teacher, administrator or parent and no one else could conceivably have any ideas or suggestions on education. (sarcasm intended)

    I will continue to watch this debate as it unfolds and keep up the good work. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not go through the Pittsburgh Public School system, however, my grandparents, parents, many relatives and siblings all graduated, and are doing quite well, from the "drop-out factory" known as Oliver High School. My nephew are currently at Oliver and their parents (who are single parents) have very few complaints about their children's education to date. My family still resides on the North Side.

    Also, despite being born and bred in a Democrat,union family, I'm a registered Republican, which I'm sure discounts my ability to have any rational thought at all by many since I've been brainwashed by the national party system. (extreme sarcasm)

  2. My son went to Schenley before we moved to the suburbs. The place was dirty and depressing. I once went into the woman's room and was so disgusted that I almost vomited. My son described a school that was out of control. Kids would answer their cell phones in class no matter what the teacher said. Kids would tell the teachers to F^&* off and walk out of class.
    Those who live in the city and have the means to get out will move, or send their kids to Oakland Catholic or Central.

  3. It's funny how very different people's reactions can be. As an eighth-grader visiting prospective high schools, my first impression of Oakland Catholic was that its old green block of a building was dirty and depressing. Schenley seemed brighter and more open, mostly because of the high ceilings. I say this completely without malice or sarcasm, it was just my fourteen-year-old impression (bathrooms and rude kids notwithstanding).

  4. The City's Building Inspectors, trusted public servants, should be on the front line of this matter / issue / struggle / enviro.

    Join with me and insist that city governement send its building inspectors onto the scene and report upon their findings and suggestions.

  5. By the way, Mark Roosevelt's resignation is due.

    Roosevelt has gone way beyond the call in his actions that the board has NOT sanctioned. And, those acts have been failures.

    Example #1: Roosevelt called for the Pgh Promise. The board was not a part of that folly.

    #2: Roosevelt wanted to remove "public' from the Pgh Public School title. The board was NOT a part of that folly either.

    Nuff said.

  6. Mark,

    You need to realize that not everyone is in your position. A relatively small number of the taxpayer children's lives are being disrupted.

    I have 2 very young children and I am pulling for the board and Roosevelt to succeed in school reform and I think they are doing what they think is right given the faulty system.

    I have heard you rant in numerous places about the need for more communication and information from the PPS board. Even if you had it they would still be able to make the decision for you. As you know that is how representative government works.

    As a leader of the local Libertarian party it is your responsibility to take advantage of this opportunity to fight your fight...and our fight. Parents should have more control over their childrens' education and if they did you could have saved Schenely (if you were willing to pay for it).

  7. Ex Pat Pgh Girl, thanks for the Portland perspectives. I am often amazed that we only look out our window at our own backyards and fail to realize that most American cities and school distrcits are in nearly the same boat. I read some minutes of Baltimore MD school board meetings and public hearings. Do you know during public hearings the administration, principals of buildings and other staff can discuss the testimony with the speaker? I saw situations that got fixed on the spot. Giving your three minutes to speak to nine blank faces is unfullfilling in PPS. As far as the condition of PPS buildings I have some advice that may be called first line parent involvment. At volleyball games one mom checked the ladies' room and had her son check the mens' room. If they need paper or soap she tracks someone down immediately. Usually the principal or vp.

  8. Bram, you need to write a post on Tuesday's rally and hearing since NONE of the media seemed to actually listen to the speakers. No One is questioning the threat of asbestos or the cost. They just keep repeating the administrations talking points.