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Heyl: Neighboring districts shy away from Wilkinsburg's forbidden fruit

| Tuesday, April 21, 2015, 10:27 p.m.

To: Wilkinsburg School District board members

From: Heyl Consultants LLC

Re: Accentuating the positive

When selling an apple, emphasizing the skin's brilliant red sheen often can distract from the potentially sale-killing worm hole.

It's best to keep that in mind as you attempt to have Wilkinsburg divest itself of what most school districts typically consider one of their more significant assets: students.

Grappling with financial difficulties and declining enrollment, you recently approached the neighboring Penn Hills School District with an enticing proposition. You offered $3 million in tuition fees if Penn Hills would take 200 Wilkinsburg students in grades 7-12.

With Penn Hills facing a $9 million deficit and needing every dime it can get, you figured the deal was a slam dunk. Instead, the ball bounced off the rim when Penn Hills essentially said, “We're sure your kids are nice, but we'd rather risk insolvency than take them.”

The nearby Woodland Hills School District responded to your advances as a homecoming queen might to someone in the pocket-protector crowd.

Unless you can get their eyes off the worm holes, expect similar results in the district's meeting with Pittsburgh Public Schools officials.

One worm hole is the Wilkinsburg's reputation as a tough school district, a reputation not entirely undeserved when even your community-parent liaison has had trouble with the law. (You can protest all you want that Walter Wilson's 2010 simple assault conviction was a minor misdemeanor, but the woman with whom he had the altercation probably would disagree.)

To counteract the misperception, you must polish that apple like students once did for teachers. Make that skin shiny by noting:

• Your students' reputation for roughhousing is undeserved.

Point out that it's been nearly three years since Wilkinsburg was named the state's most violent school district in an independent study by the Commonwealth Foundation. Note with pride that in 2013-14, there were only 10 cases of assault against district staffers.

• Your students will help provide a better educational experience for students in the absorbing district.

Wilkinsburg will bring its impressively consistent truancy rates to the new district, thus providing the opportunity for more individual instruction by unofficially keeping class sizes down.

Chronic absenteeism is so prevalent in Wilkinsburg that the nickname of the district's sports teams should be changed from “Tigers” to “Truants.” Wilkinsburg's habitual truancy rate in 2013-14 was 47.2 percent. The year before, it was 47.6 percent.

• Your students' integrity is unquestionable.

The 2013-14 Keystone Exam results for Wilkinsburg High School showed 5 percent proficiency in algebra, 6 percent proficiency in literature and no proficiency in biology. Given that the test scores are among the state's worst, Wilkinsburg students clearly aren't cheating.

See? These kids can be assets anywhere. You just need to put the shine on their collective apple.

And be prepared to pay a district a king's ransom to take them.

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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