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.”
Other than the Wilkinsburg Tigers football program, parents, students and residents say there aren’t many extracurricular activities available to children in the borough. A combination of declining enrollment and financial instability has forced the district to cut programs over the years.
“My son doesn’t have the extracurricular component that I would definitely like him to have,” says Scott. “Education-wise, he’s definitely learning. He’s being challenged, so I wouldn’t say it’s a lackluster education. But I know there’s not enough youth in the school for them to have certain programs, so I know he could be enriched more in a better setting.”
The potential for more opportunities for Wilkinsburg students is why school-board member Johnson voted in favor of the partnership. As a father of two, he says he originally was not in favor of sending students to Westinghouse until he toured the school.
“The main concern for the parents is the safety issue — the two communities having issues in the past,” says Johnson. “I had the same fear they had, but after taking a tour of the school and speaking with some of the administrators and some of the students, it changed my decision completely. I was totally pleased with the security measures they have in place. I would not have voted yes for this partnership if I thought it was dangerous for any children.”
Johnson currently hosts regular meeting with Wilkinsburg parents where he plans to share his experience touring Westinghouse.
“My decision was ‘no’ up until I walked into that building. There was no way I as a parent could say no to my son with all of the opportunities they had there,” says Johnson.
“We have had to cut so many sports programs. This year we didn’t even have a cheerleading team. There are different languages they could be learning. We offer nothing. There are no electives and they’re at a disadvantage for everything. Enough was enough.”
Beyond the strengths supporters say they see in Westinghouse, Wilkinsburg students will also be able to apply to Pittsburgh magnet programs at other schools after the first year. But some have questioned why the students have to wait one year at all.
“Why are you holding students away from full access for one year?” outgoing board member Mark Brentley said at Pittsburgh’s school-board vote. He made a motion to eliminate the one-year requirement, but it did not pass. “Is it because this community is predominantly African American? Whatever the reason, you don’t treat children this way.”
And even after Wilkinsburg students meet the one-year requirement, there will be barriers to magnet entry, say critics. Pittsburgh’s magnet programs — like those at CAPA, which specializes in the creative and performing arts, and Sci-Tech, which focuses on STEM fields — are already at capacity.
“They’re not going to dump Pittsburgh kids to put Wilkinsburg kids in,” says Haulk, of the conservative Allegheny Institute. “You’d be able to hear the screaming over in Beaver County if that happened, and I wouldn’t blame the Pittsburgh parents. If I’ve been waiting in line to get my kid into a good magnet school and this Wilkinsburg kid comes along and bumps them, that’s not going to sit well.”
Haulk says his organization believes a state takeover of the district, or sending Wilkinsburg students to charter or private schools, would be preferable to sending the students to Westinghouse.
“To me, it would’ve been a lot better to solve the Wilkinsburg school problem in Wilkinsburg,” says Haulk. “But to have them shipped out of the neighborhood to go to a school that does not offer much in the way of promise in terms of educational attainment, I just don’t see that as benefitting anyone.”
Pittsburgh is eager to prove Haulk wrong.
“We’re pretty excited about the opportunity to work with the students from Wilkinsburg, and you’ll feel that excitement from the students at Westinghouse, too,” says Superintendent Lane. “There are several things we think we can offer.”
In addition to resources now at their disposal, Lane says Westinghouse has secured a grant that is being used to improve academic programming. The district is also adding a public-safety career program to the school.
“At Westinghouse we’ve added additional supports from the district in order to help them make even further progress than we made last year. We saw some real positive things in terms of the culture, so we want to maintain the momentum,” says Lane. “We have an opportunity to offer children more than what they have right now, and we’re willing to do the work.”