The summer was rocky for Wilkinsburg School District. In August, a survey of more than 560 respondents found the community has lost confidence in its school district. Only seven percent said they are proud to have students attend the district’s schools and only five percent said they would recommend the district to friends and family.
Now with the advent of Fall, new superintendent Lee McFerren has taken the helm of Wilkinsburg. His challenges will be raising the district’s academic ranking and facing the possibility of a state takeover.
“The first thing we have to do is get the community involved. They have to take ownership of their children’s lives and the success of the Wilkinsburg community. I have reached out to businesses, clergy, organizations and anyone who has a positive idea that will help the school district. Ownership of the educational process is important because regardless of who has the title of superintendent, education must become an expectation in the community.”
McFerren was voted in by the Wilkinsburg Board of Directors on May 28 to replace former superintendent Archie Perrin, and started his tenure on July 1. He said his mission is to change the perception of the district.
“Unfortunately perception is reality, we do have administrators here who care. We do have teachers who work hard in an attempt to educate children but perception can be so strong it often outweighs any of the positive things being done,” McFerren said. “In addition, my model for this year is engaging every child everyday for a better tomorrow. We have to get our administrators and teachers engaged in different methods of teaching and learning. We have to inspire the students, we have to motivate them and we have to offer them a reason to know education is the key to their future.”
In 2011, Wilkinsburg was ranked 495th out of 498 school districts in Pennsylvania. McFerren said the key to improving the district’s academic standing is to show Wilkinsburg’s students the value of education.
“It’s a culture. Some cultures value education more highly than others and in Wilkinsburg and other poor urban communities, sometimes the culture doesn’t value education,” McFerren said. “So you really have to have a shift in the way cultures value education.”
McFerren said he plans to inspire students by increasing advanced placement and elective course. He also plans to renovate the district’s facilities, improve technology, and continue to provide professional development for teachers and staff.
These improvements might prove difficult as the district faces a possible state take over as a result of financial distress. The district recently borrowed a $3 million loan and has also laid of teachers and other support staff. Wilkinsburg was placed on the state’s financial watch list in March.
McFerren said part of the district’s financial shortcomings can be attributed to the more than $4 million spent on the more than 300 students the district has lost to charter schools. Today, Wilkinsburg serves 1000 students.
However that didn’t stop the district from spending approximately $15,000 to send a group of staff and administrators on a three-day retreat to the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort this month.
McFerren comes to Wilkinsburg from the Farrell Area School District where he was fired from his position as high school principal in 2008. In 2010 a judge in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania determined that McFerren was unjustly fired and the school board did not have sufficient evidence for his termination.