Cease-Fire Marks Opening of Pa. School in Privatization War

By Jeanne Ponessa — September 13, 1995 5 min read

Wilkinsburg, Pa.

After a two-year school-privatization battle that has divided this community and captured the attention of the nation’s educators, the focus in Wilkinsburg last week was finally on the children.

Nearly 400 students streamed into Turner Elementary School on Sept. 5 as television cameras, reporters, and a throng of parents lined the steps to the building. The protesters who had picketed outside before the first day of school were conspicuously absent. Inside, a banner proclaimed, “Turner Elementary School: It’s All Good.”

But despite the excitement and optimism that marked the first day, the future of Wilkinsburg’s experiment with corporate school management is by no means assured.

The school board and the company it has hired to turn Turner Elementary around, Alternative Public Schools Inc., face two serious challenges that could torpedo their efforts before the semester is out.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Sept. 18 in a lawsuit filed by the local teachers’ union claiming the district acted illegally in hiring the Nashville-based for-profit company.

And on Nov. 7, five of the nine school board members face re-election. A local group that opposes the contract with APS is seeking to oust four of those members and dismantle the contract.

Old Teachers Replaced

Low test scores, high tax rates, and frustration about the declining quality of the district’s schools led the board in 1993 to seek proposals from private companies for managing the school.

Last year, it chose Alternative Public Schools and signed a contract with the company.

Unlike some privatization efforts that have retained existing teachers--notably Education Alternatives Inc.'s agreement to run nine Baltimore schools--APS has replaced all 24 teachers at Turner Elementary. Eight teachers have been reassigned; the rest have been furloughed.

Both the local teachers’ union and the National Education Association have bitterly opposed the venture. (See Education Week, April 12, 1995.)

Teachers say the problems at Turner Elementary stem from larger community issues, not from poor performance by teachers.

During the most recent protest, at the teacher orientation on Aug. 28, a group of teachers and parents wore black armbands and denounced the newcomers who would be taking the jobs of the old Turner teachers.

But after meeting the teachers at a Sept. 1 breakfast, many parents spoke enthusiastically as the school year began about the new teachers and administrators. Although many of the new teachers hail from the Pittsburgh area, some come from as far away as Arkansas.

“They’re younger, they’re energized, they’re concerned,” said Rollin Ibrahim, who had just dropped off her 6-year-old granddaughter. “When we walked through that door we were made to feel comfortable.”

‘Like a Family’

Dennis Craighead, the father of two Turner students and a security guard at the school, said the personnel shakeup was important for teacher accountability. “Teachers will know they’ve got to do their job,” he said. “If they don’t, something like this will happen.”

Inside the building, teachers have personalized the hallways outside their classrooms with collages of family pictures and memorabilia as a way of introducing themselves.

“We’re like a family,” said Sheila McElroy, who teaches 1st and 2nd grades.

Company officials also pointed to several community connections among the school’s new staff. One teaching assistant, for example, was the president of his Wilkinsburg High School class, and one teacher’s mother was a former Turner crossing guard.

“Hopefully, we want to build the school into a community center,” said William R. DeLoache Jr., the chairman of APS. The company’s plans call for an extended school year, multi-age classes, and a rigorous, integrated core curriculum.

The new principal, Elaine Mosley, came from Chicago’s Corporate/Community School with an ambitious agenda for her students. She envisions the school as a place that will embrace the development of both its students and their families.

She would like to see the school offer courses in literacy, computer training, and “basic health and safety issues” that would inform parents as well as children. “It’s not about sending children out to an unchanged community,” Ms. Mosley said. “We’ve got to look at their environment as well.”

Opposition Remains

Still, some community activists don’t buy the argument that changing one school will unify a community.

After the first day of school, members of a local group that opposes the contract gathered in the back yard of a home nearby to discuss strategy.

Lenora Olday, the president of Wilkinsburg Residents Against Profiteering, said the district has pumped more than $2 million into Turner while other schools lack basic supplies. Community reform, she said, “has to be something that involves everybody.”

Brian Magan, the vice president of the school board, said in an interview that the 1,900-student district has spent no more on Turner than on any other school. Under the contract with the company, the district will pay APS $5,400 per student--the district’s average elementary per-pupil spending in the 1993-94 school year.

The teachers’ union has sharply criticized the board for allowing a company with no education experience to run the school.

Butch Santicola, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the school board overlooked years of experience by rejecting a school-reform plan offered earlier by the teachers in cooperation with the University of Pittsburgh. “They’re gambling with the future of students,” he said.

Battles Ahead

Of the two clouds looming over the venture--the state supreme court case and the school board election--the repercussions of the court’s actions are far more difficult to predict. Though the court is scheduled to hear the case this month, it is unclear when a decision might be expected.

Mr. Santicola said that the union intends to keep fighting even if its court challenge fails.

But if the state high court rejects the contract, it may be “the end of the road for the program,” said E.J. Strassburger, the school board’s attorney. He said it was unclear whether, in that case, the program would be dismantled immediately or at the end of the school year.

Mr. Magan said he views the court decision as a bigger threat to the program than the upcoming election. “My feeling is that this is going to be so successful,” he said, that voters “are not going to want to turn it around.”

Opponents of the venture, however, are eagerly looking forward to the Nov. 7 election.

Ms. Olday said that if an opposition slate of candidates wins, she’d like to escort APS out of town personally. “I’ll help them pack.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 1995 edition of Education Week as Cease-Fire Marks Opening of Pa. School in Privatization War