Monday, June 23, 2008

Preserving Schenley: The Prudent Choice

That, of course, only opens him to evermore imaginative conspiracy theories for "wanting'' to close Schenley. (P-G, Brian O'Neill)

You see what Our Columnist did there. He put little scare-quotes up around wanting, in order to illustrate to his readers the patent absurdity of Our Superintendent, any superintendent, actually desiring to close a successful school like Schenley. How cynical of us even for suggesting it.

Thing is, that is what Mr. Roosevelt told us quite clearly.

Maybe not in so many words. Yet several weeks ago, when Mr. Roosevelt made his presentation, his pitch, his final recommendation to the School Board in favor of permanently closing Schenley, he did not begin with the dispiriting $76 million price tag for building repairs (which is now under heated dispute) or the extrapolation to an addition $7 million burden of debt financing over the next 20 years (which, being based on the $76 million figure, closure proponents do not seem to think renovation proponents will notice is subject to the exact same dispute, no matter how many "teachers" this is supposed to equal.)

No, Mr. Roosevelt began his pitch with an assertion that today's discriminating parents do not want "old, comprehensive" high schools -- do not want schools that teach math, literature, music and science with the same rigor, and teach students of different abilities and backgrounds with the same forthright confidence. Today's parent's demand choice -- they want to be able to choose while their students are in 8th grade, or even in 5th grade, whether little Sally is destined to be a chemist or a sculptor, and to liberate her from whatever or whomever it might be that would hold them back from that destiny.

It was odd that Mr. Roosevelt did not seem to acknowledge the possibility that some parents, many parents, were in fact that very day demanding the freedom to choose Schenley, and to choose comprehensive education for many reasons that should be obvious -- for the social enrichment, the expansive education, and the ability to let little Sally choose her own career path once she has been prepared and exposed to the lot of them.

For even as he segwayed into the numbers that would comprise the heart of his presentation -- the data, the cold, unyielding data about building renovation that he was keen to insist underlied his proposal-- Roosevelt did not present a bit or a byte of data to support his assertions about what the Parents of the Future will demand.

If there is cynicism in the ranks, this is a big part of where it comes from. Somehow, the closure of Schenley is explicitly and avowedly tied up in high school reform -- in the need to transform the District forward into the future -- but into what? And why? When will it be discussed? When will the School Board get to cast votes on this basis?

We can be relied upon to debate saving our children from dying of cancer. Yet ever since the real facts about the imminence of the asbestos threat at Schenley have gotten around, we do not hear much about that anymore.

We can be relied upon to debate saving ourselves from massive tax increases. Yet ask to pick through the budget and see how much a modest, safe, "spartan" renovation would actually cost -- or try to start a conversation about how else it can be paid for -- and we are told we are being "preposterous." We are either going to fix this school right, or we're not going to fix it at all -- so we're not going to fix it at all.

Mr. Roosevelt will appoint a citizens group to decide what to do with the 320,000-square-foot building so that he's as far away from the end result for Schenley as possible.

We can be relied upon to debate what to do with an abandoned lot. In fact, would we please go ahead and make that decision ourselves, because the obvious result if the administration determined the outcome for us would be politically, ah -- unfortunate.

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Yet we the people cannot be relied upon to determine the course of high school education into the future. We are too parochial and sentimental for that.

Point out that high ceilings, plentiful sunlight and natural ventilation lead to better academic performance, and suddenly "data" is quaint and not all that important.

Point out that investing in sturdy, superior build stock is more affordable in the long run than pouring money into newer, cheaper buildings, and suddenly long-term fiscal prudence itself is not all that important.

Point out that splitting asunder a successfully and joyously integrated public high school, which happens to be the best-performing majority African-American school in Pittsburgh, in such a way that the black students are shunted into two comparatively dismally performing schools, segregated from their more affluent classmates and from the rich cultural opportunities in Oakland -- suggest that this may be unAmerican on its face -- and you are being parochial and sentimental all over again.

Mr. Roosevelt ended his presentation that day by going back to the big picture -- the one that had seemingly little to do with data and evidence -- by putting up a slide with a quote.
"We should not fear change, because change is the future, and the future is bright." Or something like that. We are paraphrasing. It was designed to convey that those who want to keep Schenley open are not being very forward-thinking at all.

If we were invited to think about the future, we would. If we were invited to look at some data about what efficient, effective high schools will be in the future, and how best to educate our children, that would be a joy compared to this. Yet that subject never seems to come up. Instead, we are asked to debate things based on our fears, and are informed that the future is rather just out there. Somewhere.

We are reminded of a familiar refrain that Barack Obama supporters used in response to suggestions of their sexism during the Democratic primary. "We're ready for a female president," they would protest, "just not this one!"

With Schenley advocates, it is the same way with change. We are ready for change. We are ready for schools to close, for students to be moved, and for traditions to end. Just not this one.

We appreciate Superintendent Roosevelt, we really do. We appreciate his vision, his focus, his determination, and the way he is challenging us to unglue ourselves for our past. However, superintendents are not ultimately in charge of School District policy, and that is wisdom. Mr. Roosevelt should be grateful for guidance from this board and from this active and concerned City. How else, but through such dialectic, will superior school policy evolve?

Our School Board should apply the brakes to this closure of Schenley High School, and it should initiate a forthright public discussion on where Pittsburgh Public Schools are headed -- bringing forth all manner of evidence as to how we might determine its shape, and how we can best satisfy the wishes and aspirations of every kind of family.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you Bram for helping to hopefully change this discussion (as the parents have been trying to do) to a discussion about what the heck (I usually use a different modifier there!) "reform" will ultimately look like. If Schenley is the harbinger of that change, I'm not optimistic. My son no longer goes to Schenley--er Reizenstein. He will go to Allderdice next year, a change that would have happened regardless of the outcome of this fight. My daughter is years away from High School. I have no immediate horse in this race. But I still am adamantly opposed to closing Schenley 1. because we haven't seen all the real data or had any of the questions we started asking in November answered, and 2. for all the reasons you stated.

    How frustrating that the heart of this debate has been ignored in almost completely ignored in the press, and people still think its a debate over $72 million dollars worth of asbestos. I hope that the rest of the city wakes up before the Pittsburgh Public Schools system crumbles and Roosevelt skips town without...(I want to make some reference to Music Man but its been too long since I've seen it.)

    I'd hate to be one of the politicians that bet the wrong way on this one!

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  2. undercover parentJune 24, 2008 at 10:39 AM

    I am often amazed at how much a parent plays a part in the success of a student attending a magnet school. Mark Rauterkus is a fine example with his son at Frick. He has his son involved in activities outside the school environment as a supplement which likely fills a void created by not having his kids in a neighborhood, comprehensive middle school. Mark makes it look easy. I too have a middle schooler, but mine would not function and perform to the best of his ability in a magnet. I tend to think of his education in a complrehensive middle school as his liberal arts education phase. Mr. Roosevelt may just find a number of parents just like me who will demand the retention of comprehensive middle schools and ask him to keep them operating. Every parent and student have choices. This should be an option.

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  3. The problem is choices cost money.....money that we dont have. All of these designer programs are lovely, but we simply cant afford tham all.

    Putting money in to remodel old buildings versus using space we have is the issue at hand. We need the money to pay for the teachers union contracts...so the buildings must be neglected.

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  4. Ummm, at 12:36 -- the "designer programs"? That's the Roosevelt wave of the future. IB as its own school rather than part of a comprehensive high school, a science and technology school, CAPA and Rogers merged and all of the above in 6-12 formats. These are designer/boutique/theme schools (pick your term) and they're all his. It's being done in the name of increased choices.

    He says that comprehensive high schools (and it looks like most middle schools) are on their way out. Can't prove it by the suburbs, but it's true here, because he's doing it.

    I'm a little confused by the description of Frick as not comprehensive above you though -- it has sports teams, music, clubs, etc. Doesn't mean that some kids don't also do other things outside of school, but you can surely fill your kid's time with the programs *currently* offered at Frick. I added the ** because I imagine many of those things may not last long after the IB program becomes a 6-12 stand-alone school.

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  5. On what shape "reform" may take: Think tax reform, health care reform, social security reform, tort reform, welfare reform, campaign finance reform, etc.

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