On Oct. 28, Pittsburgh Public Schools approved a partnership with the Wilkinsburg School District that would send students in grades 7-12 to Pittsburgh Westinghouse for the 2016-17 school year.
The following day, PPS Superintendent Linda Lane visited Wilkinsburg’s three schools to talk to the more than 200 students who will be filling her desks next year.
“Do you have a swimming pool?” Lane says one student asked.
“Do they have uniforms there?” asked another.
The answer to both questions was “yes.”
“They seemed more curious and were wondering, ‘What are some of the opportunities we’re going to have when we attend there?’” says Lane.
It’s no secret that Wilkinsburg is one of the lowest academically performing school districts in the state. And according to scores released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education last November, Wilkinsburg High School was the lowest-performing school in the county. But it’s also no secret that Westinghouse is one of the lowest-performing schools in Pittsburgh, and doesn’t rank too well at the state level, either.
So while many see this as an opportunity for Wilkinsburg students, the question remains how much of a benefit they’re really receiving.
“It’s a shame that they were willing to settle for sending their kids to Westinghouse, because if there was one school in Western Pennsylvania, if not the state, that is academically as poor as Wilkinsburg, it’s Westinghouse,” says Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. “I’m not sure their kids are going to be uplifted by being around kids who are failing as bad as they are, if not worse.”
The decision to send students to Westinghouse has raised red flags for many Wilkinsburg parents, including members of the district’s own school board. Some parents are worried about their children’s safety, both due to current discipline issues at the school and the potential for conflict between the two groups of students. And Keystone Test scores released last year showed that Westinghouse ranked lowest in English, science and math of all schools in the city.
But while statistically there might appear to be little difference between the two schools, supporters of the decision say the differences are night and day. They say the PPS/Wilkinsburg partnership is the best chance the borough’s children have to get the education they deserve.
“I graduated from Wilkinsburg. The level of education they were receiving, we thought it was unfair to the students,” says Michael Johnson, a Wilkinsburg parent and school-board representative. “It took a lot out of us to come to this decision. We just want the best for our kids. We think Pittsburgh has pretty much everything to offer our students, things that we could not possibly give them.
“We just couldn’t sit around any longer and accept what was going on.”
A few days after the two school boards approved the PPS/Wilkinsburg partnership, Marcus Wells was waiting for his daughter, Naomi Williams, across the street from the Wilkinsburg High School building. As a seventh-grader, Williams will be part of the first group to enter Westinghouse next year.
“I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to go Westinghouse,” she says after bounding across the street with a friend. “I have teachers that talk to me who I can learn from here.”
Wells isn’t too sure about the partnership, either. Both father and daughter share uneasiness about how students from Wilkinsburg and Homewood will interact once they’re attending the same school. They’ve also heard stories about Westinghouse kids fighting each other in the school’s bathrooms.
“We think mixing Wilkinsburg and Homewood right now is going to start some drama,” says Wells.
And Wells isn’t the only parent worried about the social aspect of the partnership. Andre Scott, another parent with a seventh-grader, says he’s worried the change could affect his son’s behavior.
“I just want to ensure his behavior doesn’t shift,” Scott says.
Despite these concerns, both Scott and Wells say they’re excited about the new opportunities their children will receive at Westinghouse.
“On the positive side, they have a lot more activities at Westinghouse. My son wants to play sports. There’s a [career and technical education] program. He’ll be able to benefit from those programs,” says Scott. “If that is the option we have to take, we just have to ensure Westinghouse is teaching all the children at a high level.”