Pittsburgh Schools' Superintendent Mark Roosevelt called it a "totally true and inescapable reality." Schenley High School must close its doors, he announced May 19 ... and the district must move on with its high school-reform efforts.
"This is the right agenda," he said.
Unfortunately, the ensuing discussion between administrators and board members proved another "inescapable reality": Ripple effects of closing the historic high school will be problematic for Schenley's students ... and also, as school-board member Jean Fink pointed out, for its teachers.
"Will Schenley's faculty and staff go to the new schools?" Fink asked. "Or will they be bumped?"
The answer, district officials say, is complicated. Schenley students could find familiar faces in new classrooms, or they could find themselves with new teachers as well. And the resulting dilemma poses yet another obstacle to Roosevelt's massive overhaul of the district's high schools.
The fate of Schenley itself hasn't officially been decided -- board members could vote on a plan for the building as early as June -- but the future of its students was determined in February.
The asbestos-ridden school, which Roosevelt says would cost $65-75 million to renovate, will have vacant hallways next school year, as its students transfer to other district buildings. Schenley students currently in grades 9-11 will move to the Reizenstein building in East Liberty, where they will eventually graduate with Schenley diplomas.
As for the current eighth-graders who would have been entering Schenley this fall, some will attend the new University Prep school at the former Milliones Middle School building in the Hill District, which will open this school year with ninth graders only. The school will grow to accommodate grades 6-10 by 2009, and eventually become a 6-12 school combining middle-school kids and high-schoolers.
Middle-schoolers who would have gone to Schenley's International Baccalaureate (IB)/ International Studies (IS) program, meanwhile, will go to Oakland's Frick Middle School. Frick will add grade nine this year and move the program -- either to Reizenstein or somewhere else -- after that. Eventually, the school will become an IB/IS school for students in grades 6-12.
But what about the teachers? While students already know where they'll be learning, it's not yet clear who will be teaching them.
"[The district's] going to run into problems," says board member Theresa Colaizzi. "You're picking up a program, dividing it and putting it back down."
Much of the confusion revolves around a question that even the brightest Schenley student would have a hard time answering on an SAT: When the district compels students to move, is it relocating the school -- or just the programs in it?
"That's the question," Colaizzi says. "Those are the details that have to be worked out."
Doing so is the job of negotiators for the school district and the teacher's union. But while the question may seem arcane, the answer is important. If officials decide that moving students to Reizenstein only involves relocating a program, then the union contract says Schenley teachers get first dibs on positions in the new building. If, however, officials decide that Reizenstein is actually a brand-new school, then the contract requires that teachers throughout the district can apply for jobs. Seniority rules would mean that a teacher with 20 years of experience at, say, Brashear, could oust a teacher with only 10 years' experience teaching at Schenley.
In that case, Schenley students could lose teachers they once had, while students from other schools could see their favorite teachers leaving for Reizenstein.
(The district has already deemed the University Prep school at Milliones a new building, so any teacher in the district can apply for a position there.)
"It gets extremely complicated," says Fink.
According to Fink, the best-case scenario would be to allow Schenley's teachers to choose where they want to teach. "If you're where you want to be, you're going to do a better job," she says.
Of course, teachers can't just pick and choose their positions: They have to be certified in order to teach the programs they're interested in. And other factors come into play as well.
According to John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, seniority and certification are basically the two governing principles of teacher placement. "Seniority" simply refers to the length of time teachers have spent on the job: Teachers with more time in the district have priority over those with less -- and teachers who've spent years in a particular building have priority over those who haven't.
Certification trumps seniority, though: In programs like International Studies, whose curriculum focuses on intercultural and foreign-language studies, the school puts a premium on specific expertise rather than general experience.
Usually, Tarka says, those two principles rarely conflict. But in addition to its international program, Schenley houses a robotics program as well as a mainstream track. With each program being shifted to a different building, transfers will be more complex than usual.
"It is complicated, and people are worried about their placement," says Tarka. "Few things are more difficult for some people than uncertainty. ... [The union's] overall objective is to avoid the loss of jobs," says Tarka. "Things have to be worked out."
Roosevelt says the district is doing the best it can to juggle the complexities.
"We are trying to place the teachers where they will be the most valuable," he says. "And we're also trying to get from them a sense of where they want to be.
"I'm not trying to minimize their concerns, and I'm not saying there aren't any, but I haven't been besieged with concerns," Roosevelt adds. "For all of the public turmoil, there is also a lot of excitement."
Still, he admits, negotiating the transfer won't be easy.
"The summer will be busy, for sure," Roosevelt says. "But we'll get there."