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Class Dismissed 

Everyone knows the risks of keeping Schenley High School open. But school supporters say little thought is being given to the dangers of shutting it down.

[Editor's note: As the print version of this story was going to press, school district Superintendent Mark Roosevelt announced plans to delay the implementation of reforms discussed in this story. Click here for an update on the new timetable.]

"Do you know where you're going?" reads a sign pinned to the wall of a first-floor hallway at Schenley High School. "Stop! Look! Listen! Time will reveal."

The question has certainly been on the minds of Schenley students and parents: At the end of this month, the Pittsburgh Public Schools board will vote on whether to close Schenley, nearly a century after it opened.

But Schenley students like 11th-grader Minrose Straussman say it can be hard to know where they are headed. As her psychology teacher put it, Straussman says, "Plans about Schenley are like an Etch-a-Sketch: They might be shaken and changed the next day."

If only the same could be said of the problems plaguing her school.

Despite the building's attractive exterior, Schenley is falling apart from within. There are countless cracks and fissures in the plaster of its walls and ceilings. Some hallways are missing chunks of plaster as large as five feet square. In one stairwell, a crack runs from the ground floor to the landing two stories above, the damage covered haphazardly in crumbling plaster.

And the gaps aren't just unsightly. The plaster contains asbestos, a fire-retardant material. When asbestos crumbles, its microscopic filaments can cause cancer and fatal respiratory ailments when inhaled -- a danger compounded by the fact that the school has lacked a functioning ventilation system for 12 years.

According to consultant L.D. Astorino, repairing the problem would cost an estimated $64 million. Schenley backers strongly dispute that figure, saying the problem can be resolved -- at least temporarily -- for less than that. But the cash-strapped district's superintendent, Mark Roosevelt, has decided to close the school instead. "We just can't leave those kids at Schenley," he says.

But the plan to shut down Schenley has not been popular.

"The only thing that's broken at Schenley is the plaster," said Stephen Ankney, whose comments at the contentious Nov. 13 hearing were echoed by nearly 50 other speakers. "Schenley is not broken."

"Dismantling Schenley is not in the best interest of the community," added John Fitsioris, a third-year teacher at the school.

Why would parents fight to keep Schenley open, when it poses such a threat?

click to enlarge Clockwise from front: Schenley students Minrose Straussman, Molly Tonsor, Raven Miller, Christopher Thyberg, and Lauren Kunze. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Clockwise from front: Schenley students Minrose Straussman, Molly Tonsor, Raven Miller, Christopher Thyberg, and Lauren Kunze.

Granted, the building has its fair share of history. The triangle-shaped school opened in 1916, as the country's first million-dollar high school, and in 1986 was named to the National Register of Historic Places. It boasts Andy Warhol as one of its graduates.

But what concerns Roosevelt's critics most isn't the threat of losing a piece of history; it's the district's plans for the future.

The school board won't vote on Schenley's fate until Feb. 27. But Roosevelt has already announced plans for what will happen to its students.

Depending on what program they are enrolled in, future Schenley students will end up in one of three different buildings. Those moves, in turn, will spawn a series of restructuring efforts elsewhere in the district -- including buildings and programs that had already been restructured as recently as two years ago. Schenley's students will be the guinea pigs for a plan to create new, and controversial, combined middle/high schools attended by students in grades 6 through 12.

"Schenley was thrust upon us," says Roosevelt, adding that the need to accommodate its population required an alteration of plans. "We didn't mean to mess with Schenley, we didn't want to mess with Schenley."

But some say Roosevelt's response is messing with the entire district. They fault him for acting without sufficient community input, warning shuttling students will re-segregate the district and create unsafe learning environments. And not just for students who ought to be at Schenley.

As Oakland resident Barbara Brewton, the parent of a Schenley 11th-grader, puts it, "Schenley is just the tip of the iceberg."

In a sense, Schenley High School is really three schools under the same triangular roof.

Roughly half of Schenley's 1,034 students are part of the International Baccalaureate/International Studies (IB/IS) program, a much-touted "magnet" whose curriculum focuses on intercultural and foreign-language studies. A smaller number of students -- about 20 percent -- belong to the Technology Studies magnet, which centers on computers and robotics. The remaining 30 percent are in the school's "mainstream" program, whose curriculum is much like that of other traditional high schools.

Overall, Schenley is about 65 percent African-American -- almost exactly the same proportion as the entire district. But the school's three programs differ widely, both in terms of demographics and academic performance. Students in the IB/IS program are among the district's highest achieving; according to standardized tests, they score 65 and 80 percent in math and reading proficiency scores, respectively, meaning they perform at or above average on the exams. The Technology Studies and mainstream tracks, though, fare more poorly: Students in the former program score ratings of 33 in both math and reading; mainstream students are 17 percent proficient in math, and 35 percent proficient in reading. And more than 80 percent of the students in each of those programs are black; the IB/IS program has a roughly 50/50 racial mix.

click to enlarge Jennifer England, pictured here with daughter Riley Belden-England. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Jennifer England, pictured here with daughter Riley Belden-England.

Such disparities are common throughout the district. For years, Pittsburgh has been plagued by racial achievement gaps: White students score one-third higher in reading tests than their black peers -- a rate that has remained unchanged for the past two years. Like the district as a whole, Schenley offers some celebrated programs, while being plagued with pervasive inequalities.

But if Roosevelt's plans come to fruition, it won't stay that way for long. If Schenley closes, the school's three different populations will be sent to three different buildings. And many of those students will end up in learning environments far less racially diverse than the one they left behind.

Those in the mainstream program will be sent to the former Milliones Middle School building in the Hill District. There they will merge with middle-schoolers from Miller and Vann -- which are both more than 98 percent black. The Technology Studies students, meanwhile, will move to Peabody High School in East Liberty, whose student body is 94 percent black already. Only students in the IB/IS program will see a similar mix of faces in the hallway: The district plans to consolidate the high school program with a similar middle-school-level program, which is currently being taught at Frick in Oakland. The resulting 6-12 school, which will be housed in the former Reizenstein Middle School, is expected to be 63 percent black and 27 percent white.

Those changes raise concerns that Roosevelt is resegregating the district.

"Whether it's intentional or not, my concern is that they're realigning along racial lines," says Schenley mother Barbara Brewton. "It would be impossible to recreate the diversity at Schenley, but they should not dismantle it."

Celeste Taylor, a board member of A+ Schools, which advocates for district-wide improvement, also questions the district's logic.

"Is this an experiment for our children to see how black children can get along?" asks Taylor, also the mother of two Schenley students. "They're going to exacerbate the [city's] race issue."

"I don't know where [Roosevelt] is going," says school-board member Mark Brentley Sr., who has repeatedly clashed with the superintendent since Roosevelt took over the district in 2005. "Every major initiative in his plan negatively impacts the African-American community more than any other community."

But administrators point out that such disparities exist in Schenley, too.

"Schenley itself was segregated by the magnet and non-magnet student populations," says Derrick Lopez, chief of high school reform at the district. "While there is some truth to the fact that the youngsters were in the same hallways with one another, they were having very different experiences." When it came to test scores, "the underachievement of [non-magnet] students was shrouded by the overachievement of the students in the IB/IS program."

Roosevelt's changes will improve the already strong IB/IS program, Lopez says, but it will help Schenley's other students as well. Under Roosevelt's plan, Milliones will operate with the help of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education: Pitt students and faculty would work closely with former Schenley students, zeroing in on underserved populations and improving their lagging test scores.

"When you have a laser focus on a population, and that is your sole mission, schools are going to be successful," Lopez says. "The way we looked at things was not a re-segregation of schools, but addressing the needs of students."

But Hill District parents -- whose children make up much of Schenley's mainstream program -- have reason to be wary of innovation. Through 2005, Miller was a Hill District elementary school with grades K-5. Then, in 2006, it added grades 6-8, during which time test scores in both reading and math dropped more than 15 percentage points. They fell another 8 points last year -- even as test scores improved slightly for the rest of the district.

If the Schenley plan goes through, the middle-school grades that were added just two years ago will be taken away, and combined with Schenley high-schoolers. Miller will revert to what it was in the first place: an elementary school.

Some contend that by forcing two structural changes in three years, Roosevelt is treating Hill District kids like "a deck of cards" -- as parent Danielle Gill put it in a Jan. 14 public hearing.

"I feel like I'm being evicted," Hill District resident Shirley Edwell told board members later that night. "I have no idea what I'm going to do with my children."

"There are no excuses for having to move all these kids around," says school-board member Randall Taylor. "I just think it's a very unhealthy way to run a school district."

But Lopez says critics are exaggerating the impact of the moves. According to Lopez, the students who went into Miller as sixth-graders when the change first took place are now eighth-graders. So they'd be transitioning to a new high school building anyway.

"The children themselves haven't been involved in wholesale moves," Lopez says. Still, he acknowledges that the "building and the adults have gone through changes for three years, and that's real."

In fact, warn Schenley backers like Greenfield resident Jen England, adults with kids in other schools should pay attention.

"Other schools," England says, "don't seem to have figured out that they're next."

Miller was just one of dozens of schools affected by Roosevelt's first effort at reform. Now, even before the impact of those changes is fully understood, Schenley figures to be the harbinger of another series of reforms, which are likely to be more controversial.

In 2005, Roosevelt undertook a "rightsizing" initiative, closing 22 district schools. Many of the buildings were closed for budgetary reasons: As the city's population has declined and school enrollment shrunk, the district had more classroom space than it needed. But Roosevelt paid special attention to middle schools.

Like most other school districts, Pittsburgh relied on a structure in which most students were divided between K-5 elementary schools, middle schools for grades 6-8, and high schools for students in grades 9-12. But the approach, while traditional, seemed not to be serving middle-schoolers well. According to 2004-2005 statistics, reading and math scores for district middle schools were about 15 percentage points below state averages.

"The verdict was out on most of those comprehensive middle schools, and they failed," Roosevelt says.

"We've seen that [6-8] buildings are where kids are just marking time and walking through the motions," Lopez agrees. "It's become a vast wasteland."

In response, Roosevelt closed eight of the district's worst-performing middle schools -- including Reizenstein Middle School in East Liberty and the Hill District's Milliones. For the students in those schools, Roosevelt's first solution was to consolidate them with elementary-level students, creating K-8 programs. Miller was just one example: Roosevelt's 2005 reforms created 10 new K-8 schools.

click to enlarge School-board member Randall Taylor - HEATHER MULL

At the time, Roosevelt himself said it might take a few years before the K-8s showed any signs of improvement. But in the wake of Schenley's asbestos problem, he's already proposing a new configuration -- one that is the mirror opposite of his first effort.

Within the next two years, Roosevelt plans to create four new combined schools, each housing grades 6 through 12. Schenley's students would be in vanguard, and they would be housed with younger students in two of the middle schools Roosevelt shuttered in 2005: Reizenstein and Milliones.

That would only be the first step. In the 2009-2010 year, Roosevelt plans to open a 6-12 science and technology school at the Frick building in Oakland. He also wants to combine its high school and middle-school performing arts programs, bringing them both to the CAPA building Downtown.

Creating a 6-12 model, administrators say, will minimize the disruption caused by moving to a new building, and limit the emotional strain pre-teens are prone to experiencing at middle school.

"You can remediate children before they get to ninth grade," says Lopez. "If you don't, kids see themselves getting further and further behind."

But some parents and school-board members worry about the safety of, say, a 12-year-old sixth-grader crossing paths with a 17-year-old junior.

"You're inviting disaster," says England, the mother of a third-grader at Linden Academy and a 10th-grader at Schenley. "[Middle-school students] are at a really delicate age. They need to be in a place where they're safe to develop.

"There's already a push for young kids to develop too quickly," she adds. "Middle-school students don't need the pressure of having high schoolers watching them."

"I have a sixth-grader and an 11th-grader, and putting them in the same building doesn't make sense," agrees Schenley parent Barbara Brewton.

Lopez has tried to allay such concerns, saying that the district will be "creating schools within schools." Students in grades 6-8 will have their own section of the building, he says. (So will ninth-graders -- part of yet another initiative to ease the high school transition.)

"You can't think of these middle-schoolers having access to all of the school," he says, adding that sixth- and 12th-graders will have "almost no" contact with each other. "They'll be on separate schedules." They'll also be on separate buses: Students in grades six through eight will continue taking yellow buses, while older students will use the Port Authority.

"It's not like 12th-graders are going to be dropping out of trees to harm sixth-graders," agrees Dr. Alan Lesgold, dean of Pitt's School of Education and a member of the district's High School Reform Task Force.

"You can put the Berlin Wall between them ... but they'll still be in the same vicinity," England counters. "Right now there is some separation. You can talk all you want about keeping them separate, but I just don't see how that practically works."

Besides, part of the motivation for creating these schools in the first place is that having students in the same building does have an effect.

According to Dr. Willard Daggett, president of the International Center for Leadership and Education, while 6-8 middle schools are the most common arrangement, those schools are often the forgotten middle child. Students housed together in 6-8 middle schools perform poorly when compared to students in other arrangements. And when you take eighth-graders "out of a smaller [middle-school] environment and move them into a more disconnected environment," he says, "it seems to lead to a lot of those kids academically doing worse, socially becoming more disconnected and getting into more trouble.

"You've got to find a better way to connect those middle-school years with the high school years into a continuum," he adds. "[Creating] 6-12 [schools] is one way to do that." Daggett, who visits districts across the country, says the 6-12 model is becoming a "mild trend" in education.

Pittsburgh administrators cite Houston charter schools and Boston Public School District, among others, as models for the new configuration. Houston's five charter schools, which serve 2,100 low-income students, have indeed been successful -- they've been named among Newsweek's top 100 schools in 2006 and 2007. But charter schools are much smaller programs, and even Boston's similarly configured 7-12 schools are not open enrollment. Admittance is based on students' GPA and their ability to pass an entrance exam. So it's unclear whether Schenley's "mainstream" students can expect similar improvements from the arrangement.

In fact, a 2004 Columbia University study found that, despite growing dissatisfaction with middle-school models across the country, "how school systems structure the transition from eighth to ninth grade makes almost no difference."

click to enlarge School-board member Mark Brentley Sr. - HEATHER MULL

"Despite a long history of reform, counter-reform, tinkering and structural change, student outcomes ... are basically insensitive to school structure," concludes the study, "Fresh Starts: School Forms and Student Outcomes." Districts like Philadelphia and New York City have changed their structure with few results, it notes. "Moving from eighth to ninth grade results in changes in outcomes for all students, regardless of whether the move is accompanied by a change of schools."

"Transitions are a part of life," agrees Pittsburgh school-board member Taylor, who prefers traditional middle-school models. "If transitions are so bad, why not just make everything K-12?"

Taylor says that if Roosevelt insists on creating a 6-12 school, the district should first test the model with the IB students of Schenley and Frick alone. It would be unwise, he says, to throw Schenley's mainstream students -- who are already underperforming -- into a 6-12 school that may not work.

"If you want to do it with the [IB], that's a more motivated type of student," Taylor says. But as for kids in the mainstream program, "I would prefer not to do that kind of experimentation until we had a chance to see how it went in another location."

As concerned as people are about what they've heard of the district's plans, it's what they're not hearing that really worries them.

"All [the administration] want[s] to do is ram through their ideas and say people are being shortsighted when they complain," say parent Jen England. "They're going through the back door."

"[The district] seems nervous about listening to the community," agrees Point Breeze resident Jen Lakin, the parent of three students in the district. "But you have to do it."

"People still think there's a hidden agenda here," counters Lopez. "There is no hidden agenda. What people have done is say: 'This is shrouded in secrecy; we don't know what the plans are,' which is really throwing up a lot of dust, quite frankly, because they want to save the building."

What we have here, clearly, is a failure to communicate. And it comes down to how each side sees Schenley's role in the broader process of high school reform.

Administrators say the district's goal was, and is, to have a wide-ranging public-input process about changing high schools. Roosevelt created a High School Reform Task Force in 2006; participants include community members, administrators and staff.

But once they discovered the scope of Schenley's asbestos problem, administrators say, they had to act quickly.

"These schools have to be ready to open in September," says Roosevelt. "How can you handle public dialogue when you will not physically be ready to have a school open? Even on this schedule, it is unbelievably tight."

"We shifted on a dime in October to address the needs of these students," says Lopez. "There hasn't been an opportunity to have a give-and-take that is meaningful between the stakeholders and the administration, because it's been shrouded in yelling and screaming" about Schenley.

But skeptics like England say that the school is using concerns about asbestos to force controversial changes -- like the creation of 6-12 schools -- before the community has a chance to weigh in.

It's not that parents deny the threat of asbestos in Schenley. But most say the building could get by with a partial fix, which Astorino estimates would cost around $40 million. The money would be worth it, they say, to ensure time for a more thoughtful reform process. "Some of these changes can't be reversed," says parent Barbara Brewton about the overhaul Schenley's closing would usher in.

In fact, in November the board authorized about $1.8 million for contractors to begin design work for the new 6-12 schools, including the two that will house Schenley students.

"They're already spending money!" England exclaims -- even though the board hasn't voted to create the schools.

Indeed, board member Brentley argued at a legislative meeting the next month that the district was "back-dooring" portions of the restructuring plan. "It's just not a good thing to do," said Brentley, who'd voted against the resolutions along with Randall Taylor and Thomas Sumpter.

"We're not having very many public discussions about very important things," says Taylor. "If you continue to do things behind closed doors, it raises suspicions in peoples' minds about what you're doing and why you're doing it."

click to enlarge Chief of High School Reform Derrick Lopez - HEATHER MULL

The district "hasn't established a deliberate process for engagement," concedes Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, which advocates for district-wide improvement. But it's not too late to change that, she says.

According to Harris, "So much [discussion] is wrapped up in the future of Schenley," but she hopes that will soon change, and that educational programs within the buildings will be at the forefront of administration-community dialogue.

Harris says she "wants the community to have an opportunity to learn what the district is doing and offer input." For one thing, a public meeting on Schenley is scheduled for Jan. 29 (as this issue goes to press). A+ Schools is scheduling its own series of meetings about broader reform plans; the first will concern the 6-12 university-partnership school at Milliones. (For dates and information about other meetings, visit www.aplusschools.org.) It will be held Feb. 28 -- a day after the district is likely to have voted on whether to close Schenley.

"If the community has some ownership, we'll succeed," Harris says. "And we'll create some trust in the administration."

But if the bickering at a Sun., Jan. 13 school board workshop is any indication, it may be too late for that. Schenley was at the bottom of the agenda, but Taylor asked to move it to the top, since some Schenley supporters were in attendance. Sumpter, who headed the meeting, and board President Bill Isler said they would get to everything on the agenda.

They didn't.

After five hours of discussion about numerous other topics -- and just before starting to discuss the Schenley plan -- the board agreed to end the meeting, citing the need for some, including the meeting's stenographer, to leave for other engagements.

"I have questions!" barked Taylor. "This board has a pattern of not discussing very important issues. I'm not taking this as a coincidence.

"You put the most important item at the last part of the agenda," he continued. "The public will not continue to tolerate this."

Roosevelt, who claims changing the order of the meeting's agenda would have been "illogical," says Taylor's accusations are overblown.

"The suggestion from [Taylor] that there was some kind of conspiracy ... to get to [Schenley] at the last minute is absurd on its face, and kind of insulting," Roosevelt says.

But it probably isn't the last insult that will be hurled. Few expect the board to reverse its present course, which seems to be set on voting to close Schenley. But the poster that greets Schenley's students -- "Do you know where you're going?" -- asks a question that will become increasingly widespread, and perhaps increasingly contentious.

Students like Minrose Straussman don't profess to know the answer. But when it comes to debating the district's future, Straussman says, "Schenley is the school of the moment."

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