A classroom of empty desks in the Hill District's Miller African-Centered Academy would seem to prove the city school board's point: The district has too many unused seats. Schools need to close. Writing on the chalkboard, however, shows the room is still being used:
"Hello, my name is Dunia. I come from Somalia, I am 6 years old. Thank you."
Dunia is part of a small group of recently transplanted Somali refugees whose children are learning English and the American culture at Miller. Another part of their education, though, will be seeing how children get swept up in the political currents of the Pittsburgh Public Schools' Resource Realignment Plan that will produce its own crop of refugees. Because the district has 15,530 empty desks, the board was set to vote May 26 on its plan to close 15 school buildings. The closings will save the district nearly $9 million annually.
The Hill District, covered by two school board districts, has four elementary schools -- one too many, according to the realignment plan. Although Miller is slated to close, board members say they are committed to keeping the African-centered curriculum intact and expanding it to pre-K through 8th grade -- in some other building. But while every other proposed closing school knows its posthumous fate, where the African-centered program will go is anybody's guess.
The latest board resolution says Miller will close after the 2004-05 school year and then move "to a facility determined by the Board." Miller is the only school on the closing list without a clear plan for where its students and program will go. The only thing clear about Miller is that it will close if the resolution passes.
Earlier this month, Miller's program was supposed to take over the Weil Technology Institute, another Hill elementary school. But parents don't understand why these schools are being targeted for closure: Each is closest to capacity of the four Hill elementary schools and has the largest enrollments. Each has had hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into its building in recent years.
Weil is one of two elementaries in the central Hill; Miller is the only one in the lower Hill, a part of the neighborhood which long ago suffered other displacements due to the construction of the Civic (now Mellon) Arena.
Madison Elementary was never considered for closing, though it has the lowest enrollment and capacity. It's located in the upper "Sugar Top" section of the Hill, where the neighborhood's more affluent blacks historically have settled. It's also the only Hill elementary represented by Alex Matthews instead of Brentley.
The board has maintained that they their plan targets the district's smallest buildings and the oldest, which district officials say will cost the most to continue to maintain over the long run.
For over a century the Miller school and its African-centered curriculum has been a staple in the Hill District's predominantly black community. So why does it seem like Miller is being picked on?
"A lot of people have misconceptions of what African-centered education is all about," responds Miller's Principal Rosemary Moriarty. "They think all we're doing over here is just singing, drumming and dancing. Academics are a very high priority."
Few people from district headquarters have been to Miller to see what goes on during school hours, says Moriarty, apart from Brentley and fellow board member Patrick Dowd.
Miller follows the same curriculum and uses the same books as every other elementary school in the district. What makes it African-centered -- more than the large map of Africa on its wall -- is that teachers spend extra periods providing additional instruction from textbooks penned by black scholars. Miller's 5th grade history class, for example, adds African American History by Dr. Molefi Asante, author of much of the canon of Afrocentric history and philosophy, which states that blacks can claim Ancient Egypt as their classical civilization in the same way that European Americans claim Ancient Greece.
In music class, children sing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" while the teacher uses a variety of hand drums to teach the drum's "language" -- spelled out on his chalkboard as "ku, ku, ku, kah, ku." While the teacher beats the drum with his palms, the students beat on their desks.
The Miller school dates to 1832, when it occupied the basement of the Hill's African Church and the Society. Blacks fought to have the city school district invest in their school, charging that they paid taxes but were not receiving the same services and resources as other city neighborhoods. The board helped finance the "African School," as it was called then, shuffling it around the Hill before settling on the Miller Street site in 1906.
Now Miller is caught in a new shuffle that has implications for the future of the other elementary schools in the district, too. Since one of the Hill schools has to close, it could come down to whichever PTO proves their students are the least disposable.
That's a flawed process, says Miller PTO president Justin Laing -- over-politicized and unfair to children.
"This is why people advocate for non-elected school boards," he says. "Children cannot lobby and organize. It's on the parents to organize, but why have that step in the process? Why not have a process that eliminates these political steps so kids can have more direct access to a better education?"
Like Brentley, Laing believes that in the coming year an independent group of researchers, parents and concerned community members should survey the entire Hill and make recommendations about what school needs to be closed.
Brentley and the schools he's representing have been targeted because they're the most "politically vulnerable" Laing believes. Last year, Brentley excused himself from Saturday school board meetings that he says were pitched as relationship-building forums. He believes the school closings were discussed at one of those meetings, which put him "out of the loop" on the entire realignment plan.
Since the initial Miller closing announcement in March, hundreds of Miller parents have been involved in a campaign to keep it alive through rallies, public hearing testimonials, phone calls and e-mails to school officials. Laing and Brentley are upset that Colfax Elementary in Squirrel Hill, for one, was granted a new Spanish program without as much public agitation.
"How is it that community got a major change to their school, and in a dignified way," says Brentley, "but we're expecting these other communities to do all these things" to keep their schools open?
Says Laing: "The way it's sold is that quality education is there -- all you have to do is arrive at school to get it. That's not the truth. You have to organize; you have to fight and figure out what you want," but "essentially this has been a good experience and hopefully our kids even learned an education piece by just watching how this whole thing went down."