WILKINSBURG, Pa. — The high school in this tiny, impoverished Pittsburgh suburb has long been among the worst in Pennsylvania. Now the school board has decided to close it, along with the town’s only middle school.
Board members say that giving up on the schools is the best thing they can do to give their students a shot at a better education and a better life. But two neighboring school districts declined to take the students before a third, Pittsburgh Public Schools, found room at one of the city’s lowest-performing high schools, located in one of its poorest neighborhoods.
So in a deal approved this week, Wilkinsburg students are headed for a school that is similar to the one they are leaving behind.
Both have a history of chaotic classrooms and academic failure. Students at both schools are overwhelmingly African American, and many suffer from the twin traumas of living in poverty and in violent neighborhoods. Both schools have seen enrollment dwindle as families with wherewithal have fled.
Some see Wilkinsburg’s plight as evidence of a broken school funding system that shortchanges children from poor families, while others see it as an argument for investing in charter schools instead of trying to turn around dysfunctional school systems.
But there is widespread agreement on one thing: The story unfolding here shows the distance that remains between the ideal of public education as a great equalizer and the reality that many of the nation’s children are still consigned to schools that limit their futures.
“It’s a real parable of contemporary American schooling,” said Linda Darling-Hammond , an emeritus education professor at Stanford University and founder of a new national education policy think tank, the Learning Policy Institute.
Urban school reformers have tried to use school closures as a tool. But during the past decade, as cities such as Chicago and Washington have closed dozens of schools, students have often been shuffled from one struggling school to another — and there is no evidence that has done them any good.
“There are levels and levels of underinvestment in the kids, in the families, in the communities, in the specific districts and the specific schools. And yet here we are, closing school after school rather than building the schools that will make a difference,” Darling-Hammond said.
Pittsburgh officials say they are offering Wilkinsburg’s students a school that is on the upswing, helmed by a dynamic new principal who has a track record of improving urban schools. The school system is committed to providing a wealth of resources to support students and improve instruction.
“We think we can build something special for kids,” Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane said in an interview.
Pittsburgh officials hosted an open house this month to introduce Wilkinsburg parents to the school. The building was clean and bright, boasting a swimming pool and a stocked library.
“I just want to know that they’ve got real books here, because you all don’t,” said Benetta Blackwell, the mother of two Wilkinsburg students. “And do they get homework? Because you all don’t.”
Like many parents, Blackwell is of two minds. She wants the new option to be a better place for her girls, but she worries that it won’t be.
Students from the two schools have long feuded, she said, and she worries about an eruption of violence when they’re all under one roof. She worries that despite recent improvements at the Pittsburgh school, it isn’t ready for the kids from Wilkinsburg, where she said fights are common and where, just weeks ago, a female student made headlines for throwing gasoline on a security guard she said had mistreated her.
“I feel bad for both schools,” Blackwell said. “I believe in my heart that our children are getting cheated.”
Wilkinsburg, which lies just east of Pittsburgh, was once a predominantly white, middle-class community with well-regarded public schools. But white flight hollowed out the community, leaving vacant storefronts and empty homes.
Of the families that stayed, many put their kids in private or charter schools. Now there are just 200 middle-school and high-school students left in a building that was meant for more than a thousand.
There is so much extra space that the second floor of the hulking, century-old facility has been cordoned off. There are so few students that the high school can offer just one art class and four semesters of French instruction.
The school district receives about $2 million annually in federal Title I dollars, which are meant to help educate the nation’s poor children. But district officials have long directed that funding to its elementary schools, even though in many years, the secondary schools had higher rates of low-income students.
Withholding Title I dollars from the middle and high schools left the campuses without millions of dollars that they could have received over the years. But it’s not clear that money has been the biggest problem in Wilkinsburg, which spends more than $21,000 per year for each of its approximately 800 public school students.
Wilkinsburg voters elected four new members to the school board in 2013, soon after the financially strapped district had to borrow $3 million just to make payroll. The new board has won praise for replacing the superintendent, firing high-priced consultants and bringing renewed focus to academics.
The board decided to invest in the district’s two elementary schools, which were making progress. But the middle and high schools were so underenrolled and dysfunctional that fixing them seemed impossible.
“Our high school was miserably failing the needs of students. It was just so wrong, what was happening there,” said Ed Donovan, the school board president. “We didn’t see any initiatives, hopes, trends or prayers that were going to turn that around.”
In January, board members began quietly exploring the possibility of paying a nearby district to educate the secondary students. By summer, they had struck a tentative agreement with Pittsburgh: Wilkinsburg would pay $8,000 per student next year, and $9,600 the following year, to send its kids to Westinghouse, a half-empty school instructing sixth- through 12th-graders three miles away.
The two districts’ school boards voted in favor of the agreement this week.
Wilkinsburg officials say the deal is a great opportunity for their kids.
“We’re doing our duty to get the best education that we can possibly afford for them,” Donovan said. “This is the right thing for us to do. This is the only thing for us to do.”
The two high schools have sub-par test results: Nine percent of Wilkinsburg’s high school students were proficient in math in 2014, for example, compared with 3 percent at Westinghouse. The schools’ average SAT scores are comparable and far below the national mean. Overall academic performance at Wilkinsburg and Westinghouse places them both in the bottom 2.5 percent of schools statewide.
But Westinghouse has a higher graduation rate. It has twice as many students and offers a few Advanced Placement classes as well as cosmetology, culinary arts and several other vocational programs.
Westinghouse also has a strong principal, LouAnn Zwieryznski, who is in her second year of working to turn the school around, and a $1.3 million federal school improvement grant that will be used in part to ensure students have mental, emotional and community-services support.
Westinghouse students say Zwieryznski already has succeeded in sparking a culture change among students and in filling classrooms with permanent teachers instead of a revolving cast of substitutes.
Test scores are still far below average, but they rose substantially in 2015, Zwieryznski’s first year.
“It’s more welcoming to come to school. We have stable teachers pushing us,” said junior Mya Alford, 16, who wants to be a chemical engineer. “Kids are starting to realize that school is going to get you somewhere.”
Alford bristles at local media reports that have portrayed the Wilkinsburg-Westinghouse partnership as a merger of two failing schools. Test scores don’t tell the whole story, she says, and her school is on the rise. But she worries that the influx of new kids will upend her school’s progress.
“Next year it’s going to be crazy,” she said. “But they have nowhere else to go. We can’t say no. I just want them to know, we’re going to learn whether they want to or not.”
Zwieryznski, who is relentlessly optimistic about prospects for the merged school, nevertheless shares the concern about disrupting fragile progress at Westinghouse. “Do I think it’s the best-case scenario? Absolutely not. I can’t lie. We didn’t stabilize Westinghouse yet; we’re still stabilizing it,” she said.
Some Wilkinsburg families wonder why their kids are being assigned to Westinghouse.
Not much further away, in an affluent Pittsburgh neighborhood, is a high-performing school where nearly half of the students are white. Pittsburgh officials said it doesn’t have space for more students, but many Wilkinsburg parents say race and class play a role.
“I guess they probably look at it like Wilkinsburg is poverty-stricken. They don’t want those issues coming to their school,” said Shari Williams, the mother of a Wilkinsburg freshman, who wants her son to attend a Pittsburgh magnet school for the arts. Under the agreement, he and other students will have to attend Westinghouse next year before they have equal opportunity to apply to magnets for the 2017-2018 school year.
Local elected and community leaders have expressed concern that the Wilkinsburg-Westinghouse deal materialized because it was politically easy and makes financial sense for both districts.
“If you were to ask everyone honestly if this is the best academic solution for kids, they would tell you no,” said state Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Allegheny), whose district includes much of Pittsburgh.
Wilkinsburg students said they know lots of people see them as bad kids. But in one interview after another, they said they are desperate to learn. “Everyone’s trying to judge us,” one sophomore said. “You’re on the outside looking in.”
Senior Marlin Rainey, 18, said he feels cheated as he looks back on his educational career in Wilkinsburg. “You get away with a lot here,” he said. “If you go to a different school, you will be more prepared for college.”
Some said they will miss their school. But many students said they are tired of Wilkinsburg’s disorderly classrooms, ancient textbooks and limited electives. They are optimistic that Westinghouse will offer something more.
“I’m hoping for this to be a little bit better,” said Delmar White, a 15-year-old freshman. “A better education.”