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Pa. Board Searching for Contractor To Run School

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A year ago, parents in the town of Wilkinsburg, Pa., were plotting education reform at coffee klatches. Now they are school board members eyeing a big-city solution to their education woes.

Prodded by four newly elected board members, the district last month took the unusual step of launching a nationwide search for an independent contractor to run one of its three elementary schools.

The district, which has 1,900 students, is accepting proposals from outside groups to overhaul the education program at Turner Elementary School.

After a panel of parents, educators, and local leaders from the town of about 21,000 people reviews the proposals, the school board will decide whether to hire an independent manager.

"We're out to get a better education for our kids,'' said Brian Magan, a member of the school board. "We want to get some idea about what quality education looks like and how we can duplicate it.''

Nationwide solicitations for contracting proposals are not common, especially among such small districts, said Kathy Christie, the information-clearinghouse coordinator at the Education Commission on the States. "I think that most of the districts that contract out are in large, urban areas,'' she said.

School officials are accepting proposals from all potential contractors, including unions, groups of teachers, nonprofit organizations, corporate entities, individuals, and businesses.

"The issue of whether it's a public- or private-sector group doesn't really matter to the school board,'' said Jeremy Resnick, a former Pittsburgh teacher and a consultant to the Wilkinsburg schools. "They feel like they want some people in that building who believe the kids can learn and who have a program to make it happen.''

Turner Elementary School serves 375 students at a cost of roughly $5,000 per pupil. Almost all of the students are African-American, and 78 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Last year, about 30 percent of Turner's 4th-grade students scored above the median in reading and math on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills; statewide, more than 65 percent of students scored higher than the median.

Living Rooms to Classrooms

The board members who spearheaded the initiative were elected last year and were members of Wilkinsburg Citizens for Action, a group formed in 1991 in the wake of a property-tax increase.

A few members began an informal discussion group, turning their living rooms one night a month into study salons where parents could read education literature and hash out reforms for their town's schools.

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