What to Do About Wilkinsburg?

A recent news article focused on the Wilkinsburg School District in the eastern part of Allegheny County and its confluence of problems over the past two decades. The article quotes many different people-students, teachers, administrators, school board members who all offer up opinions about why the District is in the condition it is in. It also touched upon the mid-1990s proposal for Turner Elementary, a proposal which the Allegheny Institute wrote about in 1996 and now provides a deep and detailed history of those efforts. The article did not mention that the District endured two strikes in back to back years (1998-99 and 1999-00).

Just a short time ago and before the publication of the recent article a state senator held a community forum and called the situation "unsustainable".

Is it? Take a look at recent numbers. The per-pupil expenditure in Wilkinsburg was $20,569 in the 2010-11 school year, a 67% increase from where it stood in 2002-03. The per-pupil amount was fourth highest in the County. Enrollment fell by more than 20% from 2002-03. The District hiked millage rates in 2005 and 2012 and stood at 36.6 mills last year, the highest in the County. The idea of merging Wilkinsburg into Pittsburgh Public Schools has been raised (the two have merged fire departments and the City handles residential trash collection for the Borough) but there has not been much enthusiasm for the idea. In fact, over the same time frame Pittsburgh saw a larger drop in enrollment in percentage terms (24% to Wilkinsburg’s 21%) and it almost had the same increase in per-pupil spending (64% to 67%).

Goodbye, Mr. Roosevelt–With Apologies to Mr. Chips

The Pittsburgh school superintendent will be leaving at year’s end with almost four years remaining on his contract. He is headed for new challenges and opportunities as president of a defunct college.

Perhaps the challenges still unmet in Pittsburgh have proved too daunting. After years of effort and massive spending to improve the schools and student performance, high school academic achievement-as measured by SAT score and PSSA results-point to an unmistakable conclusion: there has been no progress in the education of 11th graders. And as anyone who has thought about it knows, we don’t spend over a quarter of a million dollars per student for 13 years so they can enter the world unprepared. It does not matter if they are good 5th grade students. The ultimate goal is not good 6th grade students. Important, but not the final objective.

Could it be that Mr. Roosevelt, upon realizing that the public school model in Pittsburgh would never accept the changes necessary to fix the high school problem, despaired of stopping the outflow of students and improving student test scores? Good time to jump at an opportunity such as going to resurrect a failed college. Let’s hope the college’s finances are able to cash his paychecks.