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School Choices

Board members for Pittsburgh Public Schools will determine the fate of students at Rooney Accelerated Learning Academy (ALA) this month, but many North Siders worry how the decision could affect all neighborhood schools.

The administration first proposed closing the Brighton Heights middle school in December due to declining enrollment. The school currently has 165 students in a building with a capacity of 450, says Derrick Lopez, the district's chief of high school reform.

Lopez attributes the decline to parents "making other choices in the district" by applying to a magnet, a specialized program or special interest at other district schools. 

Meanwhile, a consulting firm hired by the district suggested closing Morrow, a pre-K-to-fifth-grade school -- which has 390 students in a building capable of holding 458 -- because of a poor facility, and merging those kids into Rooney, which would become pre-K-to-eighth grade.

But that was just a facilities study and didn't take into account academics, Lopez says. So administrators built on the proposal, recommending that Rooney be closed this year, and its students allowed to choose between three different magnet middle schools. Northview ALA K-to-5, where the majority of Rooney's students come from, will also be reconfigured to a K-to-8 facility by adding a grade each year.

Rooney's low enrollment means, most importantly, lack of access to programs, Lopez says. The school, though improving, is still classified as underperforming under state and federal guidelines for adequate yearly academic progress.

But Lopez acknowledges that "no one wants to close schools," and several North Side citizens contend they have been given little say in the proposal. 

"We want to delay piecemeal decision-making and undertake a comprehensive planning process for the whole North Side school system," says Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference (NSLC), a coalition of neighborhood groups. "[It's] throwing the proverbial rock in the lake -- it has a ripple effect for everything."

What the community wants, says Morrow Parent Teacher Organization President Tony DeCarlo, is a middle-school option in Brighton Heights that offers stability. 

In 2006, Rooney became an accelerated-learning academy -- a school created under Superintendent Mark Roosevelt for students who needed additional educational services. Though DeCarlo says some Morrow parents wouldn't "under any circumstance send their kids to Rooney" because of some student behavior there, they don't necessarily want it closed, either. The district lacks an overall vision for North Side schools, he says. Instead, it pursues "sort of a cut-and-run approach: 'OK, it didn't work out. Let's give up.'"

Board member Floyd "Skip" McCrea, who represents the district including Morrow and Rooney, is working on legislation with District 1 City Councilor Darlene Harris urging the district to delay closures for one year. Mark Brentley Sr., who represents other areas of the North Side, also has advocated for such action.

Harris, herself a former school-board member who fought to keep open smaller "neighborhood schools," says she can understand moving a program that's not working. But when the district moves to close a school, she says, "That's when you have to start talking to the community."

Last week, the district proposed a solution to the conference that still moves Rooney students, but also technically keeps the facility open -- at least until the board holds further discussions on facilities and feeder patterns. That process would result in board recommendations by November, the administration predicts. 

Fatla says the district sent the conference the resolution prior to the NSLC's board meeting last week, but gave a less than 24-hour timetable to accept it. The NSLC took no action because there was no time to discuss it or get community feedback, according to Fatla.

McCrea would like the district to redraw feeder patterns, so more students would come into the school. 

"Historically the people in Pittsburgh vote with their feet," McCrea says. "We need the time to convince people to stay and show them what we can offer."

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