Roosevelt says closures needed as part of plan
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt has only been on the job since August 28, but he told a packed audience in Arlington that sweeping changes are in critical need in the school district.
Roosevelt made these remarks at the Arlington Civic Council meeting at the Kaufmann Center on Salisbury Street November 7.
Two days after the meeting, Roosevelt revealed his plan to close 20 schools and 18 buildings in the city schools system. He said this must be done because the 80 buildings being maintained by the district is far too costly since enrollment has dramatically dropped to 32,000 students in grades K-12. This is almost a loss of 20,000 students in the district since the 1970s.
Roosevelt hopes to save at least $10 million a year by closing the buildings. He wants to reduce the number of schools to 68 that will be housed in 62 buildings. The cuts would also result in the loss of 250 jobs in the district, including 120 teachers and 24 administrators.
The Arlington meeting attracted one of its largest turnouts ever by the civic council. Those who showed up not only consisted of Arlington neighborhood residents, but also parents of school children from other parts of the city, people with political ambitions as well as about a dozen teachers.
Several of the teachers came from Arlington School because they heard rumors the school was on the chopping block.
It was later revealed that only schools on Roosevelt's closure list from The South Pittsburgh Reporter circulation area are Knoxville middle and elementary schools, Prospect middle and elementary schools and Bon Air elementary school which has less than 100 students.
The Arlington School, with an enrollment of 328 students in grades K-8 and located on Jonquil Way, was not on the list of proposed school closings. For the proposed schools to close, the board must give its approval in February.
Roosevelt, with his wit and down-to-earth humor, made a couple light-hearted comments about the rumors concerning Arlington School, noting that rumor mills and gossip are a popular past-time among Pittsburghers. Roosevelt moved here in the summer from Massachusetts where he played a major role in education reform in that state.
Although Roosevelt was very blunt, he was able to effectively get his message across so even the handful of combative people in the audience seemed more willing to accept his message by the end of the meeting.
Roosevelt told the audience that there are 13,000 “empty seats” in the school district which are draining its resources. He noted there are 44 middle schools and elementary schools which have enrollments of less than 300 students. These schools are being “subsidized” by the larger schools in the district, according to the superintendent.
Roosevelt said if these sweeping changes are not instituted, the state will take over the school system because of district's massive deficits. He assured the audience that they would not want that to happen because the state would not care about the best educational interests of the students.
The only thing that would matter to the state would be the Pittsburgh Public Schools' financial bottom line. The superintendent said the quality of education, more than the bottom-line, has been his first priority in devising this plan.
Roosevelt said the local board is not in a position to ask the state legislature for more money because the state is already spending a subsidy of more than $11,000 per year on each child in the city. That subsidy figure is only $8,500 per child in Philadelphia.
Roosevelt also emphasized that his proposed plan is designed not only to save a substantial amount of money, but also improve the quality of education.
While there are many high-achieving students in the school system, Pittsburgh is severely lagging in terms of overall achievement, according to Roosevelt. He said there are far too many schools that are under-performing at an alarming rate.
These under-performing schools are the ones Roosevelt wants to close. None of the proposed closings target the district's 10 high schools. However, Reizenstein Middle School is on the closing list which will affect Schenley High School. If Reizenstein closes in June as expected, the building will be shut down for a year while a multi-million renovation takes place to enable Schenley to be re-located there. Schenley uses an antiquated triangular shaped building in Oakland that is too costly to maintain. A significant number of Schenley's 1,341 students reside in the city's South/Hilltop neighborhoods.
Roosevelt said he also wants to hold teachers and school administrators (principals, vice-principals, etc.) more accountable to a higher academic standard through more rigorous continuing education. He wants to also extend the length of the school day for students and teachers. Roosevelt said after 12 typical years of education, Pittsburgh students spend the equivalent of 42 fewer months in class than their public school counter-parts in other parts of the country.
By making teachers and other professionals spend more time in the classroom personally and professionally, the superintendent believes the staff will better identify and correct the problems of under-achieving students.
The system finds a large gap between the high academic-achievers and under-achieving students and this gap is growing wider, according to Roosevelt.
Several people in the audience claim many under-achievers are the product of the city's socio-economic problems apart from the school system. They basically said the failing students come from “broken homes” where there is little parental supervision and guidance.
Roosevelt said there are 4,000 public schools in this country located in blighted urban centers that achieve a high degree of overall academic success despite many of their students coming from poor home environments. He said this is accomplished because the school staffs really push their students and make a connection with them.
“If it can be done at these schools, then there is no reason why it can't be accomplished at the 40,000 or so other schools that are failing,” Roosevelt said. “We must do the absolute best that we can with what we have available.”
By eliminating the under-performing schools and transporting the students of these schools to higher academic centers, Roosevelt believes achievement levels will go up among the failing students.
If his school-closing plan is adopted, Roosevelt said, “I guarantee that student-achievement will go up in Pittsburgh.”
One woman in the audience said that there are new single-family, owner-occupied housing plans going up in various parts of the city, including the local neighborhoods. However, she believes new housing will not attract long-term residents unless the school system is good.
“We can build all the new houses that we want, but as long as there is this reputation that the city schools are [not very good], a lot more people will continue to move out of the city, rather than move in,” the woman said.
Some of the people in the audience voiced their concern about the trauma that often results when a student must change schools. Roosevelt said he would make sure there are staff people in place so students going to a new school would feel comfortable and accepted in their new environment. Several parents in the crowd said this would be wise since this has never happened in previous massive school-transfer in the district. Because there was no transition team in past closings, dire consequences have resulted for some transferring-students, according to some parents.
“Closing schools is a very painful thing for everybody, but it is also very necessary,” said Roosevelt, noting that he devised his plan without consulting with the school board.
He also emphasized he came up with this plan without any political agenda or deal-making compromises made to special-interest groups.
“Let's do this together the best that we can in the best interest of the children,” Roosevelt said. “I'm not doing this because I like to. We want to put our children in a setting where they can succeed because it is obvious that the status quo just isn't working.”