School advisory committee has rocky start

The last time the Pittsburgh Public Schools closed some of its schools, East End community members objected and tried to create their own plan. Now, the district, in anticipation of another round of closings, has formed an East Region Advisory Committee to weigh community concerns.

However, after its initial attempt to hold a private meeting Dec. 3, some are saying the community is not being included.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT— Pittsburgh School Director Mark Brentley Sr. says the Pittsburgh Public Schools are excluding the community from its East Region Advisory Committee on school reconfiguration.

“I never received an e-mail or a call. I found out about it by reading the newspaper,” said School Director Mark Brentley Sr. “And I was never told who was on it and never asked for nominations. It’s another administration attempt to stack the deck with those who’ll recommend what it wants.”

In reaction, Brentley, joined by outgoing Director Randall Taylor, scheduled their public meeting for the same time in a different conference room in the Administrative building in Oakland. The committee relented and attended the school directors’ meeting.

“It’s our feeling that this effort should be community driven with the administration acting only in a technical support capacity,” said Brentley.

The “East Region,” as defined in the district’s new literature, is essentially Downtown and anything to the East. As such it includes 29 schools in multiple districts throughout neighborhoods of: Bloomfield, Downtown, East Liberty, Friendship, Garfield, Greenfield, Hazelwood, Highland Park, the Hill District, Homewood/Brushton, Lawrenceville, Lincoln-Lemington, Mifflin, Morningside, Oakland, Point Breeze, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Sunnyside.

Taylor said he thinks the community could be better represented on the committee, but if not there is an alternative.

“We wanted people with more direct experience in the East End, but the District doesn’t seem to want that,” he said. “So, we’re going to look at everything and we’ll have our own realignment plan to present to the public in about six weeks.”

The advisory committee is comprised of representatives from educational institutions, foundations and community service agencies operating in one or more of those neighborhoods. Some of these include Community College of Allegheny County President for Diversity and Equity Rick Adams, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation Youth Development Director Rick Flanagan and YMCA District Vice President Aliya Durham.

But, upon looking at the committee, long-time education advocate Celeste Taylor asked, “Where is the community?”

“There isn’t anyone on this committee from any of the advocacy groups; A+Schools, PURE Reform, African American Advocates, the NAACP, or B-PEP,” she said. “Of course I hope this group of people, some of whom I know, does some good for our children in Pittsburgh Public Schools, but I am a bit discouraged about how these really big decisions are made way before the committees get together.”

In his email inviting district employees and civic leaders to join the committee, assistant superintendent for secondary schools Derrick Lopez said the group would discuss grade configurations, feeder patterns and the possibility of single-sex “academies,” extended hours and year-round schooling.

One proposal would turn Westinghouse High School into a magnet for sports-related studies and to create a Homewood Children’s Village — modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York — to provide a range of services to struggling families.

While it juggles various education models, the committee must also make recommendations on building closings and/or reconfigurations, including the disposition of high schools, which the last round of school closings did not address.

Last December, a different committee recommended making the Peabody High School building in East Liberty the permanent home of the district’s new International Baccalaureate magnet.

However, last month, an Ohio consulting firm recommended Peabody be closed and its students moved to Westinghouse, which would expand to 6-12 and absorb middle-grade students form two Homewood K-8 schools.

The committee has scheduled three additional public forums to gather input. They will be held Jan. 19 at the Reizenstein building in Shadyside, Feb. 9 at Pittsburgh Peabody High School in East Liberty and Feb. 25 at Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School in Homewood. All begin at 7 p.m.

Brentley, who has received complaints about potential closings on the North Side, has scheduled an open community meeting for 6 p.m. Dec. 11 at Allegheny Traditional Academy. Those attending should use the Arch Street entrance.

“How many of the people on this committee    had or have business relationships with the district, or are serious financial contributors,” said Brentley. “People are outraged because they think something else is being rammed down their throat.”

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