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  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.