Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rush to judgment

Op-Ed by citizens who care about our schools.
Rush to judgment Closing Schenley cannot be justified until the school district develops a high school reform plan

By Linda Metropulos and Jill Weiss

On May 19, Pittsburgh Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt recommended that Schenley High School be closed -- even though a comprehensive, districtwide high school reform plan has not been formulated or presented to the school board.
Linda Metropulos (lmetropulos and Jill Weiss ( are co-chairs of a committee working to save Schenley High School.

Without such a plan, how can the decision be made to close one of the most illustrious and successful schools in the district, a building that could be saved if the right team of professionals helped guide the process? We are asking the school board to table the Schenley vote until a comprehensive analysis has been conducted and publicly debated.

Members of the board, parents, students and the public have asked for a comprehensive reform plan. The only plan so far has been to close Schenley because it has deteriorated, thanks to years of neglect and poorly executed renovations.

Mr. Roosevelt stated that the district must choose "instruction over bricks" while not revealing the true cost of re-opening two schools and renovating two additional schools to accommodate the current Schenley student body of 1,100 students. According to Mr. Roosevelt, Schenley would cost at least $76 million to renovate. When board members questioned the cost to remodel four schools to accommodate Schenley students, they were given a low-ball estimate of $35 million.

There is some question as to whether these numbers are only construction costs or complete project costs. A report by MCF Architects that compares the cost of renovating Schenley to those of renovating the Reizenstein building has not been released to the board or the public. How can the board undertake a smart and fiscally prudent vote when information is confusing, sketchy or withheld?

It is also disappointing that the International Baccalaureate program, one of the strongest academic programs currently offered by the Pittsburgh Public Schools and a reason many families have stayed within the city, would be set adrift, with no permanent home identified until 2009. The lack of a well-thought-out plan for the IB program is causing chaos and concern and is forcing many families to look for other options for their children.

It is disingenuous to assume an inexpensive building solution is going to mysteriously appear for 1,100 IB students from throughout the district. Why would the administration want to prematurely eliminate Schenley from future consideration? What other options are there?

Mr. Roosevelt talks about creating a science and technology school, possibly alongside the Carnegie Science Center. Are we to believe funds will mysteriously appear for this school, as well?

Over the past year, a committee of concerned professionals has been meeting to look at renovation and fund-raising options for Schenley. Schenley is so well constructed that it would cost more than $500 per square foot to build new today -- about twice the value of modern school buildings. Why walk away from such a formidable structure?

There are alternative ways to approach the needed improvements that would cost less than the worst-case scenario that Mr. Roosevelt presented to the board. An investment in Schenley now could allow the school to be used for another 100 years.

One idea is to re-use the building's original passive system for ventilation instead of installing air conditioning. There are numerous such practical options that could lower the cost of renovation. Pittsburgh prides itself on being a leader in green design and construction; what better way to demonstrate this than by keeping an institution of this caliber functioning instead of discarding it?

Mr. Roosevelt said his staff had looked at possible state and national resources to renovate Schenley but had found nothing useful. However, our committee has found numerous programs that might be available.

Schenley High School has been set adrift by the Roosevelt administration. The superintendent says we cannot afford to save the building where Nobel Prize winners and internationally known artists and musicians were educated. He says we cannot afford to renovate the building in which politicians, civil rights lawyers, star actors and athletes have been nurtured and where children from throughout the city have thrived and learned.

Our question is how can we afford not to renovate this building, one where students of every color and social strata choose to attend school together. Living and learning together is a life lesson that cannot be taught in books; it becomes a part of us only through experience and tolerance.

We have been told that the fate of Schenley must be decided now. We are asking school board members to table the issue beyond their June meeting until they can make an informed decision.

Keeping alive the option of renovating Schenley High School would be choosing "students and bricks.

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