At a Jan. 4 meeting of the Pittsburgh Public School District Board of Directors Education Committee, a presentation outlining progress on the establishment of the Academy at Westinghouse detailed the steps already being taken to ensure a successful opening of the new school. However, seven months later, when the school opened its doors, the students, dressed in their new uniforms, didn’t even have schedules.
“You can not open a new school and not have in place the first day of school, student schedules. You can’t open and on the first day of school not have rosters for teachers and if you do, you’re asking for chaos,” said a former Westinghouse teacher who asked to be kept anonymous. “You had kids who were excited to be there. And then after an entire week of still having no clear schedule, you then ask teachers why their classes are chaotic.”
The newly formed academy, a merger between Peabody and Westinghouse with a focus on single-gender learning, has seen a fair amount of controversy in the time leading up to and since its opening. For months, rumors circulated about the school’s disorganization and reported the students planned to protest.
On Nov. 9, the district announced Shameca Crenshaw, a prior Westinghouse principal who had since moved to Weil PreK-5, would be taking over as acting principal, an action made necessary after the school’s two co-principals were put on administrative leave. The district also announced plans to eliminate single-gendered classes for fear a complaint would be filed by the ACLU and Women’s Law Project.
“Everything I’ve read in the paper, there’s a lot of smokescreens to sway the public’s perception about what happened at Westinghouse,” said Heath Bailey, a former principal on special assignment at Westinghouse. “Going into this, we knew if you put together these schools, it’s going to take awhile to cultivate a learning environment. Well, the administration came in and assessed the school in it’s infancy and put a lot of pressure on the administrators and teachers which actually made things worse.”
At a district public hearing Nov. 21, Bailey spoke on behalf of his former co-worker, Shawn McNeil, who was one of the Westinghouse principals placed on paid administrative leave. McNeil, who had already been serving as principal of Westinghouse prior to the merger, served as co-principal with former Peabody principal Kellie Abbot who is also on administrative leave.
“Even when Shawn and his colleagues became knowledgeable that support and beliefs for this project appeared to be limited by other chief administrators in the district, Shawn continued his duties as assigned. Shawn understood chain of command and remained subordinate and loyal. He was one of three administrators instrumental in carrying out many duties that led to opening a school which was the former Assistant Superintendent’s vision for high school reform in the East End,” said Bailey in a letter he read at the hearing. “Each directive given to Mr. McNeil and the other administrators by (Assistant Superintendant Derrick Lopez) was under the close watch of the superintendent and was board approved.”
Within the first month after opening, Bailey said district administrators came in and told the principals to place 16 new teachers on “improvement plans,” which are designed to improve teacher performance. Bailey said the three principals were also told they would be put on “improvement plans.”
“There’s a budget crisis as you know. Closing a school saves $8 million dollars so that’s a bleep compared to what they have to balance. The wages for teachers and administrators is where we need to cut back because we’re overstaffed,” Bailey said. “So what happened is they started to put pressure on performance. I honestly believe in my heart, this was a way to downsize. In schools where there’s a collective bargaining agreement, you have to rate people out.”
While the fate of the two co-principals on leave remains unclear, others continue to look at what went wrong at Westinghouse and how to ensure the disorganization doesn’t continue going forward.
“You cannot run a school when you have three administrators who can’t agree on anything. The school truly is run by your principals. When you’re working at an at risk school like this, it has to be your calling; it has to be your passion; you better be there at night; you better be there on the weekends,” the teacher said. “There’s no question that administrators over these principals should have had oversight. I’m not saying the responsibility was only on the principals because there are at least three levels of administrators above them.”