Westinghouse parents reflect on pros, cons

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When the Academy at Westinghouse opened its doors in August, morale was high. Parent volunteers joined teachers and Pittsburgh Public School District administrators in welcoming the uniform clad students to a new school year at a new kind of school.

While Westinghouse’s single-gender focus was met with contempt from the start, many parents actually welcomed the change and the promise it had for improving achievement at one of the district’s worst performing schools. Now as the dust settles, after four months of administrative disorganization and frequent student upheaval, they are hopeful the school’s newest principal, Shameca Crenshaw, can right the once sinking school.

“I see a lot of improvements since they got Mrs. Crenshaw there. I’m comfortable with what’s going on now. In terms of the violence, the fights and disruptions, my kids have said things are really improved,” said Kiva Fisher-Green, who has children in Westinghouse. “From August to November, the board should be ashamed of themselves. They let down these kids. We’re already in a community where trust is huge. As far as the principals who were there previously, I think it was more on the higher up administration’s fault. It’s not that I expected a brand new school to be perfect from day one but there’s some things that should’ve been in place, like curriculum; that’s basic.”

Last year, the Pittsburgh Public School Board voted to create a single-gender learning focus at Westinghouse. However, under threat of lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, the board has decided single-gender curriculum will be eliminated in January.

“My disappointment was everything they said it was going to be in terms of single gendered, they hyped the kids up, but it just went by the wayside and they didn’t have the curriculum set up. They do this for a living; this isn’t some mom and pop school district,” Fisher-Green said “It’s heart breaking to hear that the students there feel like they’re not worthy. It’s just another disappointment for those kids and the community. You trust that you send your kids to school and they’re going to get a good education. If this happened at a business or corporation there would be serious repercussions.”

Fisher-Green is on the board of the Homewood Children’s Village, a comprehensive community initiative modeled after the internationally acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone, that has played a key role in the positive changes at Westinghouse this year. The organization’s involvement at Westinghouse is part of their work with residents, faith and community-based organizations, local and state government, the public school system, and local and national funders to transform the educational, health, social service and physical conditions of Homewood.

“There are 26 additional adults who are working at Westinghouse, implementing the full service community model,” said HCV President and CEO Derrick Lopez. “In addition, on Nov. 7 we launched our Safe Passages to School initiative. What that is, is we know our students have to walk to school if they live within two miles of the school and we know that Homewood is one square mile so all Homewood students have to walk to school. So we provide transportation to students who live between one and two miles. It’s cut down on tardiness, absenteeism.”

As part of the Safe Passages to School initiative, HCV has seen the demolition of dilapidated housing along streets leading to school and led an effort to open the school building at 7 a.m. to provide students with breakfast. HCV’s other involvement at Westinghouse includes African-American male mentoring and a program focused on ensuring seniors graduate.

“So as you can see we’re doing a lot of work at Westinghouse right now. We literally have a 1 to 7 ratio for students amongst seniors and we’re going to move that down to juniors. The other pieces are mentoring and tutoring to help students,” Lopez said. “Our work is around children and families in Homewood in any model the Pittsburgh Public Schools chooses to adopt. I don’t have an opinion on any of their policies because they have a business to run and we at the Homewood Children’s Village are focused on the students and their families.”

One of Westinghouse’s tasks for the new year will be readjusting the students’ schedules from a trimester schedule to a semester schedule as part of the elimination of the school’s single-gender reorganization. Since the school opened, parents say class scheduling has been a key complaint from their children who worry they were not assigned to some of the classes they are required to take.

“They were very unorganized from the beginning. They kept changing my daughter’s schedule; at the beginning she was in algebra and then they put her in ceramics so she didn’t have math,” said Damara Carter of Highland Park, whose daughter is in ninth grade. “Before my daughter would say it seemed like the kids are running the school, but now everything is getting back in order. I don’t think they were ready for this. They wanted to start a program they didn’t really know anything about.”

Other parents, like Lincoln Larimer resident Sheree Morris are concerned with inequities at the school, such as disciplinary action that includes students being sent to the district magistrate for class disruption and their parents being given a $300 fine. Morris is also disappointed with the school’s elimination of the science and math magnet program at Westinghouse.

“They don’t have any CAS classes this year. That’s the advanced classes and (my daughter’s) been in the gifted program since she started school, so with her just taking mainstream classes, that doesn’t look good on her transcript when she applies to college. Maybe they don’t have enough gifted students, but give them another option. I know with my daughter; if you don’t challenge her, you’ll lose her all together,” Morris said. “They really need to get organized down there.”

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