Duquesne schools run out of time, cash, ideas

| Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012

The eleventh hour for the Duquesne City School District is well under way.

And as school board member Burton Comensky says, "Twelfth-hour heroics are achieved only in fiction."

On Tuesday night, the elected board called a community meeting to decide what's best for the approximately 475 students in grades K-8 still attending school there. Try to get the state board of control to give more money so the district can keep running in place• Send students to West Mifflin schools• How about a Propel charter school?

No one is sure about what to do. What they are sure about is that what's happening now isn't acceptable: children failing en masse.

Duquesne schools continue to be among Pennsylvania's worst-rated districts in academic performance measurements. The state took over the district in 2000, and the move hasn't helped. Scores on state tests in reading and math remain in the basement, and the district's incident reports place it among the most violent in the state. In short, nothing has changed.

So, what's the solution to turn things around• That, Shakespeare would say, is the question.

Is the answer smarter kids• Derric Heck, a representative of Propel charter schools, said during a presentation that the 103 students from Duquesne who go to Propel perform above the charter's average on state tests. Another 143 Duquesne students are on a waiting list for the charter school. (For the record, board members were quick to say there was no agreement with Propel -- the district is just considering options right now.)

If the Propel sample is correct, the problem doesn't sound like it's with the Duquesne kids. Better teachers?

Not surprisingly, Duquesne teachers union President Stan Whiteman said teachers are doing the best they can in a tough situation.

"(The state is) cutting the education budget," he told the crowd, which increases class sizes and results in cutbacks in the number of teachers.

Well then, it must be the community, right• John Gooden, who graduated from now-closed Duquesne High School in 1951, walked to the podium with a cane and begged all involved to stop the negativity.

"Where is our pride?" he asked.

Could it be the parents• Not the ones nearly filling the auditorium. Not the parents who placed their children into Propel schools, hoping to improve their chances.

You know how there are usually two sides to every story• There are about a dozen sides to this one, all citing the children. I don't doubt there is a great deal of concern about the kids, but there is something wrong in a situation when the group with the least say about how to resolve this is the one affected the most.

If you think Duquesne's situation doesn't affect you because you don't live there, you're wrong. A 2009 study concluded that if the education gap between American and foreign students were closed, our nation's gross domestic product would be 16 percent higher.

Comensky said everyone in the district is to blame: "(The taxpayers) say, 'They're not my kids. What, me worry?'"

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the district.

Mayor Phil Krivacek said the distressed city has lost much, most recently a CVS pharmacy.

"Now they're trying to take our school."

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