Wilkinsburg students visit future home at Westinghouse
Wide-eyed and slightly nervous, Demar White on Friday walked alongside his fellow Wilkinsburg High School students up the front steps of Westinghouse Academy — the school in Pittsburgh’s Homewood section they will attend beginning next academic year.
They walked past a drum line and a cheering crowd of teachers, staff members, Pittsburgh Public School administrators and community members.
“It will probably be better than what I expected,” said White, 15, a rising junior. “It will be something new.”
He and more than 100 other Wilkinsburg students walked through the school’s ornate iron gates and inside for a daylong orientation and tour.
Standing to the side was Franklin Duck, who graduated from Westinghouse in 1969 and is a member of its alumni association. He held a cardboard sign that read, “Welcome to the ‘House.’ ”
“It’s tremendous to be able to see the school evolve,” said Duck, 65, of Robinson. “There was a time when it looked like we wouldn’t make it. Now the possibilities are really tremendous.”
About 220 Wilkinsburg students will join nearly 500 students at Westinghouse, a 99-year-old school that once had a student body that exceeded 1,500. Over the years, it has produced professional athletes, authors and even jazz greats such as Erroll Garner and Billy Strayhorn.
About 96 percent of Westinghouse students and 93 percent of Wilkinsburg students are black.
Wilkinsburg will pay Pittsburgh Public Schools $8,000 per student the first year and $9,600 each year after that, according to a partnership agreement.
Westinghouse largely serves students from Pittsburgh’s East Hills, East Liberty, Highland Park, Homewood, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington and North Point Breeze neighborhoods.
Linda Lane, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public schools, said there is a commitment from both sides to the new partnership.
“Our top priority is making this work well,” she said. “Getting this right is important.”
Wilkinsburg has struggled with declining enrollment as the community’s population shrinks and students increasingly transfer to charter schools. The district, which in 2013 was put on a financial watch list by the state Department of Education, has had to cut back dramatically on courses, extracurricular activities and staff.
Pittsburgh Public offers a wider array of classes, vocational training programs, clubs and activities, said Wilkinsburg Superintendent Dan Matsook.
“We just didn’t have the resources to offer everything they do,” Matsook said. “We’re not seeing this as an ending. We’re seeing this as a new and exciting beginning for our kids.”
Both Wilkinsburg and Westinghouse have struggled academically.
In 2014-15, no Wilkinsburg High School students achieved proficiency in algebra or biology on state tests; 85 percent tested below basic in biology; and 40 percent tested below basic in algebra. They improved 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 science, 18 percent in math and 34 percent in reading in 2014-15.
Westinghouse Principal LouAnn Zwieryznski acknowledged there have been issues, but she anticipates improvements at the expanding school.
“Our goal is to change the story at Westinghouse,” Zwieryznski said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for two schools to come together and make this the highest achieving African-American school in the state. It’s not for other people to write our story. It’s up to us to write our story.”
Westinghouse senior Tyler Beatty will graduate in June but volunteered Friday to welcome Wilkinsburg students to what soon will be his alma mater.
“It’s important to see a community come together and get along,” said Beatty, 18.
Eighth-grader Keyshawn Hodge said he looks forward to spending the next four years with the new arrivals.
“It’s a good thing that is going to happen,” said Hodge, 13, a Westinghouse student council representative. “It’s a big step in the right direction.”
For Wilkinsburg junior Akeva Lewis, Friday was her first step down the hallways of the high school her mother attended and where she will spend her senior year.
“So far, it’s good,” said Lewis, 18. “It’s better than our school. I know that.”
Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or [email protected].