PURE Motives | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

PURE Motives

PURE Motives
PURE Reform co-founders Kathy Fine (left) and Annette Werner

There was a time, believe it or not, when Kathy Fine was an ally of Mark Roosevelt. 

When the superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools arrived at the district in 2005, the 49-year-old Highland Park resident says she had "high, high expectations" for him. She stuck with him even after he first proposed to close Oakland's asbestos-plagued Schenley High School last year.

Both her son and daughter had attended the school, but Fine says that for the first few months after the closure was proposed, "I was constantly the voice of, 'C'mon, let's give this man the benefit of the doubt. Let's get the whole picture before we run around with pitchforks.' I was almost thrown out of the room."

Today, she's wielding a pitchfork of her own.

After several months, she says, "I realized that a lot of times the [district's] rhetoric didn't match the reality." For one thing, Fine argues, the district never assured the public that the asbestos problems at Schenley were any worse than in other schools, like Vann Elementary in the Hill District. (The district says there are no comparisons to be made between Schenley and other buildings.) 

Schenley was closed last year, despite such objections. But if Roosevelt thought that was the end of the matter, he was wrong.

Today, Fine is the co-founder of Parents United for Responsible Educational Reform (PURE Reform). Born out of the "Save Schenley" movement in October 2008, PURE claims a membership of 100 parents and city residents. And as the group has grown, so has its agenda. 

"Although we're not ready to say [Schenley] is a done deal," says Fine, "it's certainly not even close to what we're all about." 

Ironically enough, Fine says she first got involved in the district because of squabbling between a former superintendent, John Thompson, and the school board. The rancor prompted local foundations to threaten to pull their funding from the district. Fine, a former nurse who now does volunteer work, helped to get Patrick Dowd elected to the school board, replacing Darlene Harris, one of Thompson's sharpest critics. 

But Dowd played an integral role in hiring the new superintendent, and although Dowd has moved on to city council, he was an outspoken defender of Roosevelt's decision to close the school. 

Along with Annette Werner, PURE's other co-founder, Fine is now pursuing her own course. She applied to replace outgoing school-board member Heather Arnet, a Roosevelt ally, when Arnet stepped down. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl selected Highland Park resident Dr. Dara Ware Allen to fill out Arnet's term instead. But PURE isn't going away, as a look at its Web site (www.purereform.com) suggests.

For example, PURE is wary of the district's push to merge middle schools and high schools together, housing students in grades 6-12. The district has cited 6-12 models in cities like Boston and New York as proof such schools can enhance student achievement. But PURE counters by citing a 2004 Columbia University study, which concludes that, "Despite a long history of reform, counter-reform, tinkering and structural change, student outcomes ... are basically insensitive to school structure."

"There is a huge amount of concern about 6-12 schools," says Werner, 47, of Shadyside. "But we're going to be inundated with 6-12 schools, like it or not."

The district has opened four 6-12 schools: the University Prep School, in the Hill District; the Science and Technology Academy, in Oakland; the Creative and Performing Arts school Downtown; and the International Baccalaureate school, in East Liberty.

Fine and Werner are wary of district plans, they say, because Roosevelt hasn't lived up to previous promises. 

"[Accountability] is a huge issue for me," Fine says. 

She points to the district's 2006 presentation, "Excellence for All: A Four-Year Comprehensive Framework for Improvement." That framework lists 19 key objectives that it pledged to meet by the end of the 2008-09 school year. 

But of those objectives, PURE points out that only six were met. For instance, while the district's goal was to have 80 percent of students score proficient in reading on state testing by the end of third grade, test results reveal that just 62 percent were proficient. 

To be fair, state test scores recently released show that student achievement in the district is improving in some respects. In fact, the district made Adequate Yearly Progress -- a federal achievement standard -- for the first time this year, making Pittsburgh the largest district in the state to meet AYP. 

While Fine praised the district for its AYP achievement at a public hearing last month, she and Werner are still concerned that the district isn't meeting its own goals.

"They themselves chose these goals, and most of them haven't been met," says Werner, whose son graduated from Schenley in 2007 and whose daughter is a high school student in the district. "They said they will hold themselves accountable, but where is the accountability?" 

"[PURE] has definitely done a fabulous job of raising questions," says school-board member Randall Taylor, a regular critic of Roosevelt. "They're doing a tremendous service to students, parents and taxpayers."

Not surprisingly, district administrators don't see it that way. 

"The facts are the facts," says Lisa Fischetti, the district's chief of staff. "What we don't appreciate is when people misconstrue the facts."

Fischetti acknowledges that the school hasn't met most of the goals spelled out in the 2006 "Excellence for All" pledge. But that's missing the point, she says. "When we put out the district's reform agenda, we were very clear that we were putting out a very ambitious plan," she says. "We could have set low numbers and said, 'Hey, we met them.'" 

And while critics fault the district for a lack of transparency, Fischetti says it's taken large strides in recent years. For example, she says, information from public meetings is quickly posted on the district's Web site. 

Indeed, the district is usually quick to post meeting minutes and agendas. And during the Schenley debate, school officials even posted all of the asbestos reports for public viewing. 

But not everything is posted for everyone to see. For instance, the Memorandum of Understanding outlining the relationship between the University of Pittsburgh and the district for the University Prep school was never posted on the Web site. 

"We're not saying we can't do better, but we're also not hiding things under the rug," Fischetti says. "We recognize how important it is to have the public know what is happening in the public schools."

Meanwhile, school officials question PURE's own commitment to genuine dialogue. In a May 7 e-mail to Fine, Roosevelt declined to meet with PURE to discuss high-school reform. "Disturbingly, we have seen all too often that you choose to disseminate inaccurate information," Roosevelt wrote. 

"Another problem," the superintendent's e-mail continues, "is that you seem to believe that it is a good idea to drown staff in data requests that add little to the stated goal of transparency but ... take people off task from serving students." 

According to Sue Ferguson, chair of the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, it's not unusual for groups like PURE to arise out of a highly emotional issue, like the closing of a popular school. And it's also not unusual for them to develop adversarial relationships with district administrators. 

"It doesn't surprise me that things get controversial," says Ferguson, "but [community groups] have to stay as close to the truth as possible."

Most of the time, "Conflicts between schools and the community are school-made," she adds. "[School districts] don't want to hear criticism."

But sometimes, say district officials, parents just don't want to hear the truth -- and if they don't like a school district's decision, they often cast aspersions about the process used to make it. 

School-board member Jean Fink credits Fine and Werner for being "dedicated women," and she adds "There is some credibility" in some of their work. But she questions their motives. "They're quite bitter about Schenley, and they're just trying to make us look bad."

"We're not trying to tear down our public schools," counters Fine. "We just want to make sure that what is said is going to happen is happening."

"It would be easy for us to stick to our own business," adds Werner, who works full time running a consulting business. "It's not like we have nothing in the world to do but give the superintendent a hard time."