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No-Show and Tell 

Because a fifth of West Liberty's students left for the re-opened Bon Air Elementary, second- and third-graders left behind may have to share a single class next year

Pittsburgh has the second-largest school system in the state, with more than 35,000 youngsters enrolled. So why should a group of second- and third-grade city-dwellers have to share a teacher in a so-called "split" class, as in Little House on the Prairie?

That's what Harold McCoy, parent of a soon-to-be third-grader at West Liberty Elementary in Brookline, wants to know. "It sounds nice, like Norman Rockwell and the one-room schoolhouse, but those children have no experience with it," McCoy says. West Liberty Principal Bobbie Cartus agrees: "Any split class is not good for the kids, because the teacher has to split his or her time and [the students] are getting half the time."

McCoy and five other West Liberty parents trekked to Oakland for the school board's May public hearing to plead their case that a shared class would hurt their kids' education.

West Liberty's personnel budget, like that at most city schools, is based on student enrollment. Next fall's projected enrollment in the second and third grade is slightly more than 30 students each - too many to put into one classroom for each grade, according to district rules, but not enough for two teachers for each grade. So Cartus has little choice but to set up one regular second grade, one regular third grade, and one mixed-age or "split" classroom.

West Liberty is built to hold more than 300 students, and about 250 would be ideal, say McCoy and other parents. That would be enough for the principal to budget for two sections of each grade, as well as arts, music and gym programming. This year's enrollment was 214; next year's is projected to be 216.

"We're talking a difference of less than 50 children," says Michelle McShane, mother of a second-grader. "That would stabilize our enrollment and get the funding we need."

Why is West Liberty running short on kids? Blame Pittsburgh's never-ending school shuffle.

Built in 1938, West Liberty was made into a magnet school (a racially integrated school with a specialized curriculum) during the 1980s as part of Pittsburgh's court-mandated desegregation plan. In 2000, the magnet program was moved to another building and West Liberty was reconstituted as a neighborhood school to alleviate overcrowding at nearby Brookline Elementary and to absorb part of Overbrook Elementary's student body when that building was closed due to recurrent flooding. More controversially, West Liberty took in all the students from Bon Air Elementary - about 100 kids - when the district closed its smallest schools to save money that year.

The school now had 253 students, and things were going swimmingly, at least according to parents like McCoy: "When they began the consolidation, we were happy because Brookline Elementary was so full. West Liberty opened when my son was in first grade, and everything in the world was there to have a quality program. They had adequate computers and a teacher for every classroom."

But former Bon Air parents were still upset about the decision of the school board - then controlled by a different majority - to close their school. "All the [parents'] meetings were taken up with how to reopen Bon Air," McCoy complains.

In the 2001 elections, school-board members who wanted to preserve some of these small schools - including Jean Fink of Carrick and Darlene Harris of Spring Hill - successfully campaigned to get more like-minded members on the board, flipping the majority. One of their first acts was to reopen Bon Air and two other very small schools. Another controversial move was to set up a $1 million "school board" fund - derided by critics as a "slush fund" - for additional audits and a financial adviser.

Although some former Bon Air families stayed, more than 50 students switched back to Bon Air Elementary for the 2002-03 school year. In May, Bon Air's enrollment stood at about 80 students; the building's maximum capacity is 120. Losing those students meant a loss of resources for West Liberty, and in the fall of last year, two small fifth-grade classrooms were combined into one, with 30-34 students.

Parent Michelle McShane argues that a single, unexpectedly large class of fifth-graders and next year's projected split class of second- and third-graders make the school less desirable. "The mistake we made was not making an issue out of that," she says, recalling the loss of the fifth-grade teacher. "But we were relieved that was all we lost. It's hard to attract [students] if you don't know what's going on."

McCoy's campaign against a possible split classroom didn't stop with his public-hearing pilgrimage. McCoy, who heads DataMax, a Downtown-based Internet service provider, cranked up his computer to produce maps of West Liberty Elementary's and neighboring Brookline Elementary's "feeder patterns" (local school assignments) based on the district's street list. "When they reopened Bon Air, they didn't readjust our feeder pattern," he notes; West Liberty was left without enough assigned students to maintain its 250-student enrollment.

The split class, according to the district, would be made up of the most self-directed kids. Until now, McCoy liked to describe his son that way. "It will hurt them, because if you took those same kids and put them in a real third-grade class, they'd [cover] more material," McCoy says. "They say they won't do worse than average. Well, shouldn't we try to get them to be more than average? If we regress the advanced, where's the next Jonas Salk?"

At least McCoy has the small comfort of preaching to the choir. Alongside Cartus, Sherman Shrager of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers agrees that split classes are less than ideal: "It's not a very educationally sound practice, we don't think. You have enough [ability] range in one grade, you can imagine it for two." Providing enough instructional time for each student is even more important now that the district has universal curricula, Literacy Plus for reading and PRIME Plus for math, that prescribe very specific lesson plans.

Even Richard Mascari, the district administrator who supervises elementary principals, agrees with McCoy. "If you do it right, my experience is that kids sometimes have greater achievement in the split. But it's really dependent on the teacher. As a school district, we don't want to advocate [split classes]. If there's any way I can minimize that, I will."

But all of this agreement doesn't fix the problem. "I'll be working with the principal at West Liberty to accommodate whatever happens there," Mascari says. The district will provide a teacher's aide or send each grade to art and music class at different times to give the teacher more time with each group.

What's more, thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind mandate, third-graders will next year join fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders in taking the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) test. The test is high-stakes, because if too many students fall into "nonproficient" score categories, a series of increasingly severe regulations could be placed on the school.

"They want these kids to take these [tests] in a split class," complains parent Debbie Rieffle. "The PSSAs take a week. What are they going to do with the second-graders? You work so hard to teach your kids to pay attention in class. Then you tell them, 'Don't pay attention to the other kids.'"

Many West Liberty parents resent Bon Air, although Principal Cartus, formerly principal at Bon Air, says, "I'm trying to stay away from that whole issue." From the parents' point of view, they'd be happy to make their school bigger and more inclusive, but they seem to be getting less consideration than Bon Air parents, who successfully lobbied the board for their own tiny school.

West Liberty parents point out that Bon Air enjoys very small classes and no splits. That's true, acknowledges elementary director Mascari - due to some lucky numbers. Because split classes are harder to teach, he says, the union contract allows no more than 22 students per split class. So, for example, even if two grades have only 12 kids apiece, that's too many to combine in one split class. "Parents at West Liberty say, 'Why do they not have to do splits?' And, once again, the board created that" situation, Mascari says.

School-board member Jean Fink has been one of Bon Air Elementary's strongest advocates. "How would you like it," she says, in response to West Liberty parents' complaints, "if we closed your school and moved you to Bon Air? They wouldn't fit [into Bon Air's 120-capacity building], that's true. But I would still ask them that question. They wouldn't like it one bit. They're trying to justify their existence by eliminating someone else's neighborhood school."

Cartus says she tried to recruit additional students to West Liberty; Spring Hill Elementary, which might have suffered from the re-opening of tiny Spring Garden Elementary nearby, found more than 60 new students that way. "We had an open house and we did get 17-20 enrollments just that night," Cartus recalls. "It was wonderful, but when school opened those children weren't here." She adds that enough children live near West Liberty to stabilize that school's enrollment, while still keeping a sizable population at neighboring Brookline Elementary.

That's probably the most realistic option for West Liberty: to reassign a few dozen kids from 415-student Brookline Elementary. McCoy's maps show that a few random streets nearer West Liberty are assigned to Brookline, probably because they were overlooked when West Liberty's feeder pattern was developed. So far, McCoy's parent group hasn't been able to get explicit support from the board or administration for their redistricting idea. And, of course, some parents from Brookline worry that losing pupils could mean a loss of funding for them, too.

Fink says she has a better plan: Many current Brookline students live in St. Clair Village, a housing project near Mount Oliver - "kids who could walk across the street to Philip Murray [Elementary]. If you sent those children back to their neighborhood school, you could close West Liberty and we'd have room for all the Brookline kids in Brookline."

The St. Clair Village students who go to Brookline were assigned there in the 1980s as part of the city's school desegregation plan, Fink explains, "and at this point in time, I don't know that that's as big a deal as it used to be. The people in St. Clair would be well served by going to school in their community, and, to me, that would be a better solution for everyone. Parent involvement I'm assuming would increase, because [Philip Murray] would be more accessible."

But, Mascari says, "The real solution is to redistrict the city, [and] you and I know that's a very political issue. The West Liberty thing, reassigning some of the streets, is just a Band-Aid."

West Liberty isn't the only elementary school dangerously close to having split classes or losing some art or music instruction. Though some city schools are full-to-bursting, Mascari says several others are hovering at the "tipping point" of about 200 kids, such as Arlington Elementary, Whittier, Regent Square and McCleary. With 200 kids, they're not large enough to take enrollment fluctuations in stride. Losing 30 kids from a school of 400 would mean a couple fewer kids per teacher; losing 30 in a school of 200 could mean one fewer teacher.

"I don't want to hear about realignment until other people are ready to bite the bullet," Fink counters. "'Let's jump on Bon Air' - that's easy, that's not their constituents. & Realignment won't take care of everything. No matter what you do, you're gonna have some people who feel singled out and picked on."

Some people at West Liberty feel picked on, and parent Debbie Rieffle has a suggestion: "The school board has a slush fund. Give me some of that money and we can get another teacher in here." c


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