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Panel studies Wilkinsburg pupils’ transition to Westinghouse Academy

Natasha Lindstrom
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Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Panelists (from left to right) Johnson Martin, Lorena Amos, Harry Clark and Shirley Biggs lead the discussion at a forum asking 'What must be done for Westinghouse High School to excel academically?' on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, at the Homewood Carnegie Library.

Retired teacher and education consultant Johnson Martin emphasized Saturday a conclusion he has made after years of observations and study: “I don’t believe that every student is college material.”

He wants to see George Westinghouse Academy focus instead on career and technical education as part of its academic plan for improving the outcomes of students, just as Westinghouse readies to take on an additional 200-plus students from Wilkinsburg next fall.

“We must prepare them for something else,” said Johnson, who has advised district administrators in Pittsburgh Public Schools and advocates classes in areas such as construction, cosmetology and automotive technology. “The district must now put some financial muscle behind making Westinghouse work.”

Johnson sat on a panel of four retired principals, teachers and central office administrators at a community forum that drew a few dozen people to the Carnegie library in Homewood. Fred Logan, a Homewood resident concerned about how the transition will occur, organized the forum.

“I’m here kicking and screaming because I don’t think that Westinghouse and Wilkinsburg should merge, but it’s a done deal,” said panelist Lorena Amos, a former teacher with 43 years of experience in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Amos pitched several ideas for helping the Wilkinsburg students integrate into Westinghouse’s school community, including morning rituals that unite the student body, peer mentoring programs and big-deal celebrations for academic milestones.

About 270 Wilkinsburg students in grades 7-12 are scheduled to begin attending Westinghouse in 2015-16. Westinghouse now has about 480 students in grades 6-12.

The looming transition has spurred unease and concerns among some parents and educators. Students at both schools have struggled academically.

In 2014-15, no high school students in Wilkinsburg achieved proficiency in algebra or biology on state tests; 85 percent tested below basic in biology; and 40 percent below basic in algebra. They did improve in English, from 13 percent scoring proficient or advanced in 2013-14 to 26 percent in 2014-15.

At Westinghouse, 2 percent achieved proficiency in algebra, 18 percent in algebra and 34 percent in biology.

“This is an opportunity for us,” said panelist Shirley Biggs, a former teacher in Pittsburgh Public Schools and associate professor emerita at Pitt’s School of Education. “We’re not just preparing to get some high scores on some high-stakes tests. … We’re preparing the keepers of our community.”

Martin noted he has been to seven cities to visit technical high schools and has been “very, very impressed by that approach.”

Westinghouse Principal LouAnn Zwieryznski was in the audience.

“The part that’s disheartening is sitting here realizing you don’t know what we’re doing at Westinghouse,” she told the panel during a question-and-answer period.

Zwieryznski, named principal in June 2014, said that Westinghouse already offers five career and technical paths, including business of sports administration, carpentry, cosmetology, culinary arts and health careers. A sixth program on public safety will begin in the fall.

Employees are getting sophisticated training on how to help students cope with trauma, she added. The school has partnered with Homewood Children’s Village to help with extended-day learning programs.

She cited union changes in hiring practices that has stopped the school from becoming a dumping ground for poor-performing and inexperienced teachers.

The district has “funded Westinghouse more than they have funded other schools,” Zwieryznski said. “We have made some significant changes in the last two years, and we are working hard.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools approved Wilkinsburg’s plan to send middle and high school students to Westinghouse in October.

The Wilkinsburg district has been struggling with declining enrollment as the community’s population shrinks and more and more students — particularly at the secondary level — transfer to charter schools. The district has had to cut back dramatically on courses, extracurricular activities and staff.

Wilkinsburg will pay Pittsburgh Public Schools $8,000 per student during the first year and $9,600 each year after that, according to their partnership agreement. Also after the first year, the students from Wilkinsburg will be able to enroll in any of Pittsburgh’s magnet schools.

Safety during the transition was not discussed at the forum.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or [email protected].

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