Monday, March 19, 2012

School District Hopes Botched Westinghouse Transition was Rock-Bottom

Board Mumbles Apology in Recognition of Shared Responsibility

At the February meeting of the Pittsburgh Public School Board, members voted to extend a contract for an outside company to continue to managing one of its schools, and ultimately issued a brief statement of apology to the Westinghouse school community after much debate.

Clayton Academy is a privately-run school for "behaviorally challenging," or "at-risk" students. While "increased structure" at the new school and "relief" for the district's other schools were intended as benefits to all parities as it was initiated in 2007, concerns were raised about the anticipated and apparent effects of "concentrating all these problems".

By 2009 some school board members aired complaints about the Nashville-based company's "information sharing", while skepticism about its academic rigor and claims of success were echoed by then-Superintendent Mark Roosevelt. Fewer students than envisaged ultimately returned to their base schools, and those who did failed to maintain their apparent academic improvement.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked up this sporadic and biennial City Paper coverage of Clayton with a detailed and very positive news article published two days prior to the School Board meeting:

Under the existing contract, CEP in April [2011] turned the school over to a new wholly owned subsidiary of CEP, called Clayton Academy Management Services, which in turn hired Success Schools to run Clayton... Success Schools made significant changes in the Clayton program. (P-G, Eleanor Chute)

The heavy emphasis on "behavioral norms"and on creative systems for encouraging these norms, as well as uniformly positive testimony from students, served to argue strongly that a corner had been turned. Yet the article's adjoining photograph of students walking rigidly in single-file with arms tucked behind their backs rankled some.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis -- president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, who has asked the district to consider using the district's own teachers at the school -- said Clayton "has taken some of the pressure off our schools so our teachers can teach." (ibid)

In the debate whether to renew the contract for another $6 million for two years, School Board member Mark Brentley first suggested that the School District might be able to do this "in-house, at a fraction of the cost". He then raised concerns that the school's function resembled that of a "soft prison" or "holding tank". Next he inquired over the precise relationship between CEP, CAMS, and Success Schools -- which School District solicitor Ira Weiss answered by stating that there is no relationship between the old "Community Education Partners" and the new "Clayton Academy Management Services" and none of the same folks are in control, an apparent correction to the above account from the P-G.

Board member Theresa Colaizzi said she agreed with Brentley's negative inclination to ink an extended deal, citing concerns she had held about the school's setup when it was determined years ago.

However, board member Regina Holley said she has visited Clayton on several occasions and it has "gotten better," and that those students are "not getting what they need at comprehensive high schools". Bill Isler said that the "two year extension will get us trained up" to consider taking on the duty in-house, and that the cost is not over-and-above what the District pays per student. Sherry Hazuda agreed that "the school's now being run successfully", and although Thomas Sumpter inquired a bit incredulously over "where is the doubling of students at Clayton going to come from," he also voted to renew the contract. These views carried the day.

Brentley also raised the specter of whether this contract extension, and the original contract, constituted "no-bid contracts" in the unhelpful sense of the term, or whether the contract amounted to "privatizing students".


The discussion over Mark Brentley's surprise motion to issue an apology to the Westinghouse High School community went much as reported twice in the P-G. His list of particulars for which the community was owed an apology included:

  • Over 300 suspensions and 70 criminal citations among students
  • Lack of correct class schedules until many months into school year
  • Eight changes in administration
  • Software glitches and holdups
  • Merging of 6-8 graders into a 9-12 grade environment
  • Lack of a gradual transition to 6-12 seen at other schools
  • Mandatory single-gender class segregation for students in some feeder patterns
  • Racial segregation in the composition of the reorganized school (it is by all accounts 98% or 99% African-American)
  • Input of the Westinghouse Alumnus Association ignored
  • Failure to provide incentives to attract "great teachers"
  • Failure to recruit teachers
  • Jobs and consultant contracts assigned as "political favors"

Meanwhile, news articles about the situation at Westinghouse include the following:

Nov. 5, '11: Westinghouse High: A Study in Disorganization
Nov. 9, '11: Westinghouse High School Gets Set of Principals
Nov. 23, 11: Puzzling Choices: Not Many are Surprised by Westinghouse's Failure, but Can it Be Put Back Together Again?
Nov. 23, '11: Westinghouse in Chaos
Feb. 5, '12: Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12 School Regroups After Single-Gender Plan is Scrapped

Board member Holley agreed immediately that Brentley's "background information is correct. I don't think anybody is going to deny that all of those things have transpired," and that "most if not all of it is absolutely correct."

Yet Holley also suggested that the Board take some time to draft a "formal statement". Hazuda also asked if Brentley would be willing to "wait a month and give us an advance?"

Brentley responded that he "had another section [written] but was fearful [enough] of this." He said instead he was prepared to consider turning over decision-making at Westinghouse to an ad-hoc committee in the community.

Colaizzi reiterated the wish that Brentley not bring such issues at the "last minute", and further not ask them to consider "a long dirty laundry list. I could apologize for an error," she protested, but this list is "degrading to staff."

Board member Jean Fink was the first to object that not all of Brentley's points were necessarily true or contributory to problems at Westinghouse: "We do have successful 6-12 schools," for example. And while Sumpter said, "I don't disagree that any of [the points] did not take place," he said he'd like to "work on the language" and take a more "collaborative" approach. Isler agreed that he'd like to study the document for a while, as "some of it he's heard for the first time tonight," for example the degree of administrative turnover.

Board member Sharene Shealey then offered a rounder critique of Brentley's motion. "Why not apologize for ten years of a lack of education going on in that building?" she asked. "Low quality education had been flying under the radar," she said, citing five students in the whole building being PSSA proficient one prior year. Nor would she attack the concept of single-gender academies, criticizing the Women's Law Project and the ACLU for having used the "hammer" of litigation.

"This ain't about those children," Shealey summarized. "This is about adults and what they think they need." She said it's appropriate to apologize for "things that didn't work," but "don't ever put this in the light of people not being concerned."

Mark Brentley, who is black, responded to the points raised in objection by ruminating upon situations at these School Board meetings he found similar to the present -- those when his colleagues would deflect responsibility to other authorities at the table or bicker over wording and procedure as a smokescreen to avoid accountability for certain decisions. "White board members do not attend meetings at black schools," he asserted on this topic. "You sit back and you make decisions, you make failures -- you make jokes too," he accused. Board members Shealey, Sumpter and Holley, who also are black and who voiced many of the concerns which Brentley was criticizing, did not respond to Brentley's apparent accusation of racism.

The conversation eventually turned upon the point of whether Mark Brentley's sheet would be connected, in any official way, to a more curt and general board statement of apology. School District attorney Ira Weiss replied upon being asked -- several times -- that that was not his understanding of the motion to apologize. Brentley himself would not definitively confirm that answer to that question -- to Colaizzi's apparent frustration -- but he did warn Colaizzi that she was coming "dangerously close to asking me to strike my remarks from the record."

In the end, despite scattered reservations about some of the particulars and a more widespread preference for composing a more collaborative statement, the School Board did at that meeting elect to issue a short, general apology to the Westinghouse community and its stated intention to do better -- with all present voting for the motion, except Theresa Colaizzi, abstaining on grounds that she was still unsure of nature of the motion.

Prior to the meeting, it was announced that the Board had also met in closed-door executive session both on Feb. 5, and again immediately prior to its present meeting, to discuss "administrative vacancies and positions opened and closed."

Meanwhile on the PURE Reform blog, which has followed reform initiatives of the Pittsburgh School District since July of 2008, some commenters are calling for an "investigation" of what happened at Westinghouse. Many decry the relatively recent influence of "carpetbaggers" from the foundation community and elsewhere. Fears include that the new crop of educational consultants are out of touch with real teaching, and that schools like Westinghouse are being utilized by District administrators to offload and jeopardize the careers of teachers and administrators perceived to be uncooperative or to hasten parental demands for new charter schools and school vouchers.


  1. Mark Brentley is right. Turn the school over to the community, could they do worse?

  2. Are board decisions ever truly about the education process? If they did more long range planning instead of all this try and fail stuff maybe they would have a better financial picture. Kids can't keep having their education in an uproar. No wonder the schools aren't making AYP.

  3. Sharene Shealey's comments are ridiculous. SHE may not have been concerned about Westinghouse years ago, but other people have been!

    Also, making a bad situation worse is not a solution nor something to be proud of. Not listening to the community and staff issues during the "planning" meetings was not a good idea.

    Linda Lane states in one of those newspaper articles that she realized the single gender training was bad. But did she stop it? Did they discuss what was bad about it? No, they just carried on.

    They opened the school without schedules. Think about that. Think about the situation teachers were put into in that school. How can you keep kids in (or out of) a classroom if there aren't accurate class lists and schedules? How do you get kids out of the hallways if they don't have a place to be?

    The failures of the opening and especially the failures to react quickly and appropriately to fix it rest squarely on the administration at the BOE, the administration at the building, and with the board.

  4. One lingering question about the Westinghouse situation is who is the alumni association and what do they mean by turning the education of it over to the community? Ms Sheary inferred that their were forces that turned on them midstream. Why? Do you believe Mr. Brentley's assertion that race trumps all in the failures of the plan? I agreed with Ms. Colaizzi when she questioned the the bullit points, that some of them were false and or misleading. What Mr Brentley does best is throw bombs without proper context and plays fast and lose with the facts.
    Eleanor Chute and the PG does a disservice to the readers by not fleshing out the facts and investigating Westinghouse from many angles. We are left with wild accusations and no one is called to tell the truth.

  5. Somehow seeing the "Brentley list" posted here really stops you in your tracks and makes you wonder what the heck were they thinking. The last item on the list reads: "jobs and consultant contracts assigned as political favors" and must have been included to be incendiary. Unless there were indisputable examples of these unethical practices attached to the resolution to apologize to the Westinghouse community, I wouldn't have voted for the apology either. Wouldn't doing so with that line included essentailly have been an admission of guilt?

  6. Another admission of guilt would have been teacher assignment. Without seniority considerations, the board can not ignore union policy. Brentley misleads!

  7. Thanks for trying to flesh this situation out and keeping it alive. What is frightening is that there is no obvious plan to fix the problems that continue at Westinghouse.What happens next year? The teaching staff deserve to know what the next steps are. Some quality teachers may leave if they are not given hope that things will be better next year. The same may very well happen with the strongest students. It takes time to plan for success. Time to stop arguing and move forward with a solid plan.

  8. Anon 4:20 asks - "Ms Sheary inferred that their were forces that turned on them midstream. Why? Do you believe Mr. Brentley's assertion that race...

    I don't know nearly enough yet to determine what is the true extent of the failure, who's right, who's wrong, who's good or bad and why, but given the clear enough mixups at WHS (lack of schedules, administrator turnover), I've almost GOT to start by guessing one ingredient in the broth was, both Superintendent Roosevelt (Oct '10) AND Assistant Superintendent in charge of HS reform Derrick Lopez (Jun '11) left for greener pastures in the middle of their district-wide reforms. The problems just scream out for lack of leadership and confused leadership. Beyond that, when there's already a lot of stress on a system, it never stuns me when the plates of lower socio-economic class are the ones not kept spinning.

    Anon 1 - I shook up the order of items appearing on the "Brentley list". But I'll say this about the meeting. In terms of contested items, board members were disputatious mainly about the idea of whether single-gender academies or 6-12 academies -- their intentional reforms -- had anything to do with the problems. There was a little hesitancy over whether 8 administrators were involved or just 5. But other than that, the theme was broad agreement as to the background facts. If anybody contested the (you'd think politically volatile) idea of "jobs as political favors", they did not mention it. You can dig around the comments of the PURE Reform site for periodic rumors of these, but those comments are mainly anonymous and of necessity unsourced.

    Anon 10:15 - Regina Holley's amendment to ... Ira Weiss's? ... brief and general apology added a statement about moving forward with a solid plan. It was fairly evident by the wording and the attitude that that plan is still in the planning stages.

  9. You're right to remind me of Derrick Lopez, I watched him for years charged with the whole high school reform task and then...poof he's gone. But, he seems to have turned up as some kind of "consultant" or something that may be working now against the district. Was he fired mid stream? Is he working against the district? Is he working with "Westinghouse Alumni"? Is Mr. Brentley angry because he can't spread the $$$$$ to his cronies?

  10. No. No.

    Tell me Mark Brentley doesn't have cronies.

    He's the odd man out on the School Board. Don't you need power to have cronies? It's volunteer position with no staff support.

    Tell me people aren't out there alleging that he is what he is because he wants School District money for his cronies. We haven't even really broached the subject of in-crowd cronies yet or what would be the methods of any cronyism.

    Ugh. One day, and we're already at mutually assured cronystruction.

  11. You seem to have missed the Public Source article:

  12. Nice add, Anon 5:28. Wow, somebody asked questions of teachers off the record!

  13. The reason I questioned Mr Brentleys connection to cronyism is because of his obsession with the money. If he knows something he should bring it. Following the money can be productive but it would be helpful if he would bring some educational insight also.

  14. Fix the blame. Or, fix the problems?

    In some ways, it may be best to do both so as to un-ravel what's what -- with insiders and others that care. If you have to do one, of course it makes sense to fix the problems.

    Next year is a BIG, BIG question. For exaple, I don't think they know who is going to be the PRINCIPAL of WESTINGHOUSE next year.

    Mr. Lopez is the CEO of the Homewood Childrens Village now. He was PPS Admin. He was on the board of the 501(c)(3) of the HCV and doing business with PPS -- and that meant a conflict. The HCV is engaged in Westinghouse in various roles, but they are working on the creation of a new charter school for that part of town. Time will tell what happens there.

    There is much to do everywhere in PPS, at WHS and beyond.

  15. Why did Mr Lopez leave when his work was so critical? This was very unprofessional and he should not have been able to profit after he left the PPS in a lurch!

  16. just a question born from casual observation...does education in the US and especially locally suffer from having big egos making decisions? it seems that mr. lopez really thought his reform plan would work and maybe he'd make an appearance on the Today show. all those student ambassadors sent to visit successful single-gender schools. sheesh. what CTE programs exist where kids might get dirty hands? you know where they don't necessarilly go on to college but a trade school or get a job?

    all the superintendents likely have a big-ego side, but just as likely really do enter the office intending to give kids a stellar educational opportunity. you gotta cringe at some comments. you don't have to agree with the top, but all you have to do watch dr. lane interact with kids to know the depth of her caring.

    boardmembers must walk a fine line to avoid appearing disingenuous. for example, don't heap praise at a boardmeeting on a school you visited if your child is employed in that building.

  17. Can anybody access the page with the board meetings?|&NodeID=5044

    It was working for me just fine until yesterday, when I decided NOOOO, why go all the way into Oakland, I'll just watch the March board meeting at home! It could easily be a problem on my computer's end but I'm getting "Unable to Connect".

    Is there an evening this week it replays on City Channel?

  18. The "live Board Meeting" function stopped working months ago. You can see it replayed using pps tube today. It should be on cable tonight at 7 and tomorrow at 10 a.m. Let me warn you, it was pretty dull. Dr. Holley's presence has changed the Q&A, with very informed questions.

  19. I can't even connect to pps tube today to watch the recording. Thanks though, I was wondering when it would air on cable.

  20. I was hoping for some opinion, perspective and insight into the PPS but all you offered was a chronology of events and then moved on. Why not offer some reflection and inside information. Most of this was supplied by the PG coverage. I am disappointed.

  21. Anon 9:52, don't underestimate the value of the post appearing on a site with an audience greater in size than the educators and families reached by "pure" alone.

    Anon 3:44, we can't even be sure Dr./Mr. Lopez "left" at all. Might he have been asked to depart? If I'd have been "superintendent for a day" I might have asked him to go just to quiet the people who claim he got on their last nerves.

    As far as any cronyism or nepotism or favoritism, many have so much to lose that the issues are only able to be discussed in vague terms. You can however be sure that all the "-ism"s impact RISE and more.