Heavy Artillery Weighs in as Fight Over Pa. District Escalates

By Ann Bradley — April 12, 1995 9 min read
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Wilkinsburg is a small school district with big problems.

Test scores in this western Pennsylvania town are low; property taxes are the highest in Allegheny County. And labor and management eye one another with bitterness and distrust.

Fed up, the school board a year ago cast a wide net for proposals to overhaul one elementary school. Last month, as the board moved to approve a contract with a for-profit company to run the school, the Wilkinsburg Education Association sued.

A county judge on March 30 ruled the arrangement was not legal in Pennsylvania and issued a preliminary injunction barring the 1,900-student district from signing the agreement. The school board has hired additional legal counsel and last week was pondering an appeal.

To Wilkinsburg teachers, the yearlong fight over who will run Turner School is about jobs.

The request for proposals to run the 400-student school included two options: using Wilkinsburg teachers, or hiring new ones. After the Nashville-based Alternative Public Schools Inc., the company the school board wants to hire, picked the second route, 30 teachers received layoff notices.

To supporters of what has become known locally as the Turner Initiative, the struggle is to provide Wilkinsburg students with a high-quality education. They remain convinced that radical measures are necessary to shake up what they see as a complacent and failing system.

In recent weeks, the conflict escalated as heavy artillery weighed in on both sides.

Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania has supported the efforts to change the school’s management. On the other side, the president of the National Education Association, Keith B. Geiger, came to town to denounce the plan and accuse the district of union-busting. (See Education Week, 3/29/95.)

Race, Class Divisions

The battle over the school takes place against the backdrop of local history, in a town with deep-seated racial and socioeconomic divisions.

Wilkinsburg, a community of 21,000 on Pittsburgh’s eastern border, was once a thriving middle-class town known as the City of Churches. But as the local economy faltered with the decline of the steel industry, Wilkinsburg decayed. Though there are still well-off neighborhoods, Wilkinsburg has become identified with subsidized housing, crime, and bad schools.

Rundown brick and clapboard houses, some with boarded-up windows, cling to the steep hillsides.

About half the town’s residents are black. Nearly all the public school students are black, and 63 percent of the students come from low-income households.

Most of the district’s 137 teachers are white, and few live in the town.

If they can, many parents enroll their children in parochial schools, move to another town, or use grandparents’ addresses to get their children into other school systems. Particularly at the junior and senior high levels, people here say, Wilkinsburg schools have become something to avoid.

At the same time, property taxes have gone up. After a 52-day strike in 1981, teachers received extraordinary protection against layoffs. In 1991, the union enraged parents by waging a disruptive on-and-off strike for 17 days. Such strikes are now outlawed in Pennsylvania.

To pay for the settlement, the district raised taxes. That was the last straw for many parents and taxpayers.

A biracial slate of candidates took on the school board, and when four of its members were elected in 1993 they began casting about for ways to shake up the system.

‘Held Hostage’?

The anti-tax sentiments of some board members have prompted the union to question their motives.

Wealthy people who live in the Blackridge section of town want to improve Turner School just so their children can go there, according to Arlene J. Richardson, a staff representative for the Pennsylvania State Education Association who is working with the Wilkinsburg union.

But Peter Thompson, a school board member who became involved because of concern over high property taxes, said the issue has become much larger: the future of the town’s schools.

“I don’t know anyone who is still in this thing who still cares about how much they pay in taxes,” he said. “It’s so frustrating.”

A primary election next month will center around the Turner contract, with opposing slates of candidates who support and reject the idea. Union leaders have denied charges that they rallied people to run in opposition to the Turner Initiative.

Lack of money apparently is not the problem in Wilkinsburg. The district spends $8,800 a child--about $3,000 more than the national average.

Nor is class size an issue, particularly in the high school, where enrollment drops off substantially when compared to the earlier grades. Because of restrictions on layoffs, there are fewer than 11 students per teacher in the secondary school.

Ernest N. Ramsey, the president of the school board, said the Turner Initiative was proposed to create a model of success that could show parents and educators a better way. From the start, Mr. Ramsey said, the board hoped the local teachers’ union would submit its own bid to run the school.

Mr. Ramsey has caused a stir by spending a lot of time at Turner School, where his 7-year-old daughter is a student. Officials there have asked that he not come around so often, but Mr. Ramsey has rejected their requests, saying he worries his daughter is not safe at school.

He said he sees little difference between paying a Nashville company to run the school and paying teachers who take their salaries out of Wilkinsburg and have little personal stake in the success of their students. “This community has been held hostage by 137 teachers, of whom less than 10 percent reside in this community,” he said.

The union, threatened by the possibility that members could lose their jobs, submitted only a sketchy plan.

The Turner Initiative “was done with total disregard for our contract and the [state] school code,” Ms. Richardson said.

She charged that the initiative has nothing to do with student achievement: “The truth is, they want to get rid of some teachers.”

Wilkinsburg is the “drive-by-shooting capital of Pennsylvania,” Ms. Richardson added. “The community is dysfunctional and the district only reflects what the community is like.”

Superintendent Kenneth Barbour, who began his job in January, said student achievement in Wilkinsburg must and will improve. He is putting the finishing touches on a restructuring plan for the entire district.

No ‘Urgent Need’

To devise a plan for Turner School, Alternative Public Schools--which has never run a public school--sought help from Pittsburgh educators with proven records in educating disadvantaged African-American students.

The company’s proposal calls for a rigorous, integrated core curriculum, grouping students into multi-age classes, keeping the school open from 7 A.M. to 6 P.M., and extending the school year to 212 days, from 180. The school also would have a “family-support center” to link students and families with social services.

The district has spent $100,000 for Alternative Public Schools to begin planning the revamped school. One of the owners of the company said last week he is still interested in the project, despite the injunction.

But union officials reject the idea that such drastic changes are necessary, saying the real educational crisis is at the district’s high school, where the average combined S.A.T. score of graduates is less than 700. Few students even take the popular college-entrance examination, officials say.

Teachers at Turner School say they have been unfairly singled out and blamed for students’ test scores.

Only 31 percent of Turner 4th graders scored above the national median in reading on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, while 30 percent scored above the median in mathematics.

But the school board’s emphasis on test scores masks the progress that Turner School students make each year, teachers say. The picture is complicated by student mobility--only 30 percent of percent of 4th graders have been in the Wilkinsburg district since kindergarten, said Barbara Bell, the union’s chief negotiator and a teacher at Turner.

“This is a very good school,” Ms. Bell said. “I don’t accept that there is an urgent need relative to Turner.”

“Every year we’re looking at new ways to address students’ needs,” she added.

Conflicting Views

Ms. Bell maintained that a state-mandated process for drafting a strategic plan is the proper vehicle for discussing school improvement. The Turner Initiative and the dissension it has caused, she said, have been a waste of time and effort.

Teachers at Turner have used a successful mathematics program developed at the University of Pittsburgh that enables kindergartners to do problems with fractions, Ms. Bell noted.

The school offers full-day kindergarten and is moving toward whole-language instruction and hands-on science, teachers said. It also has received a grant for a connection to the Internet, the global computer network.

But a recent visit to Turner School suggested that there is still room for improvement.

The walls were decorated with coloring-book pictures, not with original student artwork.

In one classroom, a teacher publicly singled out a boy who made a mistake. In other classrooms, children mechanically filled in worksheets, colored dittos, and copied a two-sentence letter from the chalkboard.

All the attention to the shortcomings of Turner has been dispiriting for teachers.

“We’re getting such a bad rap,” said Diane M. Chessman, who is enthusiastic about helping students use the Internet.

“All we hear on the news is that our children are dumb and they’re underachieving because of us,” complained Denise Greco, another teacher. “We just need a timeout room so that kids who are disrupting the class can leave.”

The union and the district are currently negotiating a new contract. In a counterproposal to the school board last month, the union offered to extend the school year for more clerical and in-service days for teachers, but not for more classroom teaching.

Ms. Bell said that though teachers might accept early-retirement packages, the union will not relax the restrictions on furloughing teachers. High school teachers should instead be redeployed to the elementary schools, she said.

Repairing Relationships

People here remember when Wilkinsburg was a sought-after district, said William Thomas, a professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh.

But, for years, Mr. Thomas has noticed “for sale” signs appearing in front of homes in his neighborhood where children have reached school age.

He can remember when the relationships between teachers and students--the key to education, in his view--were not governed by union contracts and rules.

Only by improving those relationships, he said, will Wilkinsburg schools get better.

“The union has done exactly what it is supposed to do. Those people have paid their dues to have job security,” Mr. Thomas said. “My question is, what security does a child in Wilkinsburg have?”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1995 edition of Education Week as Heavy Artillery Weighs in as Fight Over Pa. District Escalates


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