Oliver, Arsenal prepare for mergers

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On Nov. 22 the Pittsburgh Public School District approved a realignment plan that would see the merger of Oliver and Perry High Schools, Arsenal and Fort Pitt Elementary schools, and others. While some are still working to fight these mergers—namely Oliver and Perry—school district administrators and staff are working to ensure smooth transitions by the time the 2012-2013 school year rolls around.

“We understand it never gets any easier to close schools for students, families or staff. We didn’t think we’d still be doing this in 2012 when we started in 2006, but we have learned things from these past transitions,” said Nancy Kodman, executive director of academic and operations integration. “While everybody understands schools have to close, no one wants it to be their own, so it’s that emotional piece. A lot of this is filling in the gaps of uncertainty. How am I getting to school; what are the expectations; building the relationships and trust, and for kids especially, building up the relationships with school staff. Kids adapt best, and it’s really the adults who have problems adapting to these changes. For a lot of these kids they already know some of these students from the neighborhood.”

Each of the schools involved in the realignment plan has a transition team made up of parents, families, students, administrators, and teachers. These groups are tasked with disseminating information to the community and ultimately taking the necessary steps to ensure the merging schools come together seamlessly when school begins in the fall.

“Some things we’ve already done are made sure there were multiple points for parents to get information. We sent letters to families in closing schools. And it’s hard for staff too, so our human resources department went out to the closing schools. Even though we don’t know everything, we wanted to alleviate some of the tension,” Kodman said. “We’ve found there’s never enough communication. I think when you get the information and the support you need it lessens the anxiety, and when you feel you’re a part of the planning process.”

At Pittsburgh Arsenal, administrators and staff are preparing to merge their largely diverse student population, which represents more than 13 countries, with the predominantly African-American population from Fort Pitt. The school’s transition team is planning a series of meetings for parents to meet staff and student field trips between the schools to help the children feel more welcome.

“Arsenal currently has English as a second language program and students from Fort Pitt, may not be used to kids who have English as their second language. I think it’s a wonderful learning opportunity. We’re a very diverse school here,” said Arsenal Principal Ruthie Rey. “I think there may be some negative community perceptions about Arsenal. It’s important to let them know that we are a place that is welcoming and safe and that we do have a very positive learning environment here.”

From the outside, it might appear as though principals from Perry and Oliver have an easier task of mixing students from schools that are both on the North Side. However, critics of the merger, who differ even amongst themselves, argue that there is a longstanding rivalry between Oliver and Perry, which accepts students from around the city, and others say there are tensions between students living in different North Side “territories,” sometimes only a block away from each other.

“Some of the things we have planned is we’re going to try to blend some of the activities the students are involved in. I don’t foresee many challenges. It’s a situation where all of the kids are from the North Side,” said Oliver Principal Dennis Chakey. “I think at first it’s a little bit of a shock, but as we sit down with students and we explain to them that with more students there’s going to be more opportunities for them, they’re starting to come around. I think the benefits are endless. Academically the students will be provided a wider range of courses. There’s a plan to ensure all of the benefits at Oliver are still available.”

The school transition teams have planned monthly meetings with their parent school community councils.

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