One month after the Pittsburgh Public School District announced a proposal for a new realignment plan, they have begun hosting a series of public forums throughout the city. At the second meeting in the North Side Sept. 15, area residents echoed their neighbors in the West End when they spoke in opposition to the district’s plan that would see the closure of seven schools and seven school buildings.

JEANNINE FRENCH (Photo by Rossano P. Stewart)

“One of the main concerns I have is with safety. These schools are closing down and these kids aren’t getting the education they need,” said Maria Haley, a mother with children in the district. “As a taxpayer, I wouldn’t mind paying more money.”

Under the district’s proposal, schools slated for closure include Oliver High School, Langley High School, Northview K-8, Murray K-8, Fort Pitt PreK-5, Schaeffer K-8 and Stevens K-8. The majority of participants in the forum held at King PreK-8 were unhappy with the proposed closure of Oliver and Northview.

“Northview School is the only heartbeat left. If you take away our school, what do we have left,” said Marcus Reed, a North Side committeeman with children in the district. “There’s a lot of problems on these buses. If you care about our kids, you’ll keep these schools in our neighborhoods.”

Assistant Superintendant Jeannine French presented the district’s proposal and the reasons behind their recommendations prior to hearing from the audience at the forum. She said the district is being forced to consolidate schools because of a projected $53.6 million deficit in 2012.

French said schools were recommended for closure based on a system that studied student achievement, student enrollment, facilities condition and operations cost. Out of all of the schools in the district Oliver and Langley scored the lowest.

Under the proposal students from Oliver would be moved to Perry High School. While the district is still trying to determine which of Oliver’s programs could be integrated into Perry, the current proposal includes the continued operation of the JROTC program at its current facility in Oliver.

“The JROTC program teaches us leadership. Why would you be closing a school with a program like that,” said Tyrel Smithson, a junior Oliver student in the JROTC program. “There’s a lot of rumors going around that Oliver is a bad school, but I go there. I’ve just seen so much improvement.”

“You see a decrease in the Pittsburgh Public Schools because parents are losing faith. They feel like they don’t have any power so that’s why they’re putting their kids in charter schools,” said Shauna Ponton, mother of a recent Oliver graduate. “My child was one of those kids who was at risk when he came to Oliver. Now he’s starting his first semester of college. Let’s not try to fix what’s not broken.”

French said the realignment and feeder pattern changes will help address the district’s inefficiency in class sizes. If class sizes are raised to their maximum limits, the district can save $30 to $40 million annually.

“We’ve made good decisions to make sure we’re holding the line on spending,” French said. “Some of our schools have great arts offerings and others have gotten so small they can’t offer those courses. A lot of our schools with large class sizes work.”

“My biggest concern is the classroom sizes. I don’t see how it’s feasible for one teacher to teach 30 students or even 25 students. It’s unrealistic,” said Asia Howell, a mother who also substitute teaches at King. “How are we really trying to effectively teach with one teacher in a classroom with 30 students. My biggest concern is the children and the quality of education.”

When addressing representative from the PPS, most participants listed safety as one of their major concerns with the merger of Oliver and Perry. They questioned whether the district is working on a mediation plan to ensure a smooth transition for students from rivaling groups.

“We ask the students what they want. What we find is once they get to know each other, they realize they don’t have very many differences,” French. “Fights happen, but we don’t see a significant increase in fights when we merge schools.”

Participants at the forum also suggested the formation of a new North Side school as opposed to simply moving student from Oliver to Perry. They said the district should decide what programs to include in the new school and then decide which of the facilities would be most suitable.

The next meeting will be on Sept. 22 at the Reizenstein facility. The earliest the board could vote on the proposal is in November.

“Of course I don’t support it. This administration has a history of not taking their time. Someone still has to answer the question of, why haven’t you touched schools in the South Hills,” said Mark Brentley, district 8 school board representative. “At the same time that area was given money, they were closing smaller schools. This is the second closing that has not impacted schools in that district. It’s racially motivated. Just because a school is succeeding doesn’t mean you should leave it alone.”

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