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City schools summary focused on negatives

A district that has “failed a generation of young people,” a school system in “serious trouble” — leaders of the Mayor’s Commission on Public Education did not mince words when they presented their findings on the Pittsburgh Public Schools earlier this week.

Notably absent from the presentation, however, were portions of the report that praised district test scores that continue to improve, promising educational initiatives and an experienced corps of teachers.

While the omissions may have been lost on the general public, they were not lost on local community leaders who have read the full report, nor on members of the mayor’s commission themselves.

“There are a lot of good things happening in the city’s schools now,” said Richard King, a district justice and commission member. “It’s kind of sad that it came out that way.”

The commission’s student performance chairman, the Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis, pointed out during the presentation that more than half of the city’s public school students cannot read at grade level and that nearly two-thirds cannot do math at grade level.

Individual school figures were more dramatic, with some schools seeing 91 percent of their children reading at grade level or 78 percent doing math at grade level, while others had just 3 percent reading at grade level or no students doing math at grade level.

The full report, however, says the district’s scores have continued to improve over the last several years and offer “reason for hope.”

“At all tested grade levels, average reading and math scores were higher in 2003 than they had been over the preceding six years,” the report states. “In fact, the district’s gains in test scores consistently outpaced those of the state.”

Philip B. Hallen, former president of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, said he can’t help but wonder why the positive aspects were omitted from the executive summary of the report.

“I view it as negative and destructive to the very kind of process they call for, which is collaboration and coalition building,” he said.

Tom Murrin, a retired Duquesne University business dean who has served as an adviser to the school district, agreed.

“When you know you need continuing contributions from your colleagues on the board, on staff, on faculty, among student body, you don’t criticize them without balancing your message,” he said.

Jerome Taylor, a member of Lewis’ committee, said time constraints may have led to the omission of such facts.

“I think the intent of the presentation was to give a bare-bones presentation of the findings that were directly and compellingly related to the recommendations,” he said.

Al Fondy, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, put it another way.

“In their attempts to try to justify (their recommendations), they’ve completely misrepresented the achievement and quality of this school system,” he said.

“They couldn’t describe the positive things and still remove an elected board,” he said, referring to a recommendation to replace the elected school board with one appointed by the mayor.

Taylor, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said the larger report is a better reflection of the commission’s findings and feelings.

“I think the report attempted to strike some level of appropriate balance between the good news and the distressing news,” he said.

Nikki Durnil, a Sheraden parent who served on the commission, said she believed the presentation was the right one to make.

“It was everything I feel that needed to be said,” she said. “The fact that some of the positive things weren’t reflected — even though there are positive things that are happening — it’s not good enough.”

King did not attend the presentation but said he encourages people who question him about the negativity of the report to read the 140-page document, which offers many positive recommendations other than an appointed board.

“There are a lot of good things in that report,” he said. “I hope they don’t get lost on that one single issue.”


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