Duquesne school’s future uncertain

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Several weeks after Duquesne city leaders convened to discuss the future of 440 students in the K-8 Duquesne City School District, that future remains uncertain.

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SCHOOL BOARD—Connie Lucas would like to see a Duquesne City School District that better educates its children. (Photo by Rossano P. Stewart)

“We had the meeting because the elected board and the community, we, wanted to see what options we’d have if they do close the school district. So we wanted to get the community together as well as local officials,” said Connie Lucas, a Duquesne school board member. “What they’re deciding to do, I guess it’s too early to tell us because we haven’t heard anything. We don’t know exactly what can be done.”

Charged with deciding the fate of the school district is the state board of control, which is currently considering four options: moving students to the West Mifflin Area School District, which currently houses Duquesne’s high school students; sending the students to Propel Charter School; converting Duquesne into a charter district; or keeping the district open. While Lucas has no actual control over the decision, since the Duquesne school board has lost its voting power, she said the community wants the district, made up of one school, the Duquesne Education Center, to remain open.

“Our high school students went to West Mifflin, but we as a community want to keep our schools in our community. We don’t want to have our babies bused,” Lucas said. “We are not fighting for the school district as it is; we are fighting for a high quality of education for our kids in Duquesne. Education is a right not a privilege.”

The Duquesne saga began in 2000 when it was taken over by a state-controlled board focused on solving the district’s financial and academic problems. Then, last spring the Department of Education announced the district could not continue to operate in its current form past the 2011-2012 school year.

“Duquesne has been in trouble, but we are not alone, there are a lot of school districts in financial difficulty, but they continue to educate their children,” Lucas said. “We in Duquesne have never been a community where properties were worth lots of money. We only have K-8 there and it can be done. We really don’t have power of the vote, but we have power of voice.”

On top of the district’s financial problems, which are the result of low property values and the city’s median income of $25,898, the district also has some of the worst achievement rates across the state. In 2008 the district was ranked 496th out of 498 Pennsylvania school districts and 105th out of 105 western Pennsylvania School Districts.

“The reality is the performance of the students at Duquesne is in dire need of improvement and any decision the board makes will be in the best interest of students,” said Francis Barnes, chair of the board of control. “All of these options are being discussed, but the reality is there’s only so much money available and once we find out how much that is, the solution will become apparent. We hope to be able to inform the parents of Duquesne about these options so they can make a choice.”

Even if the board decides to close the district, choosing between the alternatives will also be difficult. According to a representative from Propel, Duquesne students who attend the charter school do better than those who attend the public school. However, sending the students to West Mifflin could be the first step in a once proposed merger of West Mifflin Area School District, Duquesne City School District and Steel Valley School District.

“We are actually waiting to hear what our role is in this as well. Right now all we hear is speculation from the state. It’s obvious Duquesne needs financial support from the state to remain open,” said Daniel R. Castagna, superintendent of the West Mifflin Area School District. “I’m fine with either decision. If the state says they’re going to fund Duquesne to remain open that’s great. If the state says no we’re not going to fund them then we need to make some decisions.”

The third option of converting the district into a charter school could be part of a larger statewide plan to have charter schools take over failing districts. However details of how this plan would be implemented, and how a change to charter schools would help financially struggling districts is uncertain.

“There are probably about 30 other districts in the state that are going to be in the same financial situation. I think people are watching Duquesne closely because whatever the state decides to do is going to be the same fate for 30 other districts,” Castagna said. “I’m hoping to have final input in the final decision. I need to know if an acquisition is going to happen, what are the details.”

Remaining silent on this issue are administrators from Duquesne School District. They say they are still unsure when they will receive a decision from the state.

“We have been directed to forward all questions about future financing and the future of the district to the Department of Education,” said Paul Rach, Duquesne Superintendent. “My opinion is we need to know what our kids are going to do and I know they’re working on it. I just don’t know when we’ll have a solution.”

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