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Heyl: Wilkinsburg grad's experience bolsters criticism of district

| Tuesday, April 28, 2015, 11:03 p.m.

Atiya Coston didn't have an immediate answer to my question.

What should be done with Wilkinsburg School District?

Coston, a 2013 Wilkinsburg High School graduate, took a few moments to respond when I approached her at the borough library. That's understandable. She went there to borrow a few videos, not contemplate a complicated query that long has evaded a frustrated community.

Those frustrations boiled over last week when I wrote a column about the district's thus-far-futile effort to ship 200 students in grades 7-12 to a neighboring school district.

I chided district officials and parents for having made students unmarketable to other districts, even though Wilkinsburg would pay another district to educate its kids.

Among the printable reactions to the column were criticisms that I know nothing of Wilkinsburg's problems, that I am insensitive to its students and — this one stung the most — that the column showed racism.

No one disputed that the district with the highest property taxes in Allegheny County long has been plagued by low test scores, high truancy rates and violence. But the visceral reactions to what I wrote convinced me to look more deeply.

I found that two district elementary schools showed improved test scores last year.

I found a group of ninth-graders had formed the Wilkinsburg Student Union, whose mission is to sustain a culture of positivity and accountability in their academic community. Those students will hold an assembly after school Friday at Hosanna House on Wallace Avenue, with “food, music and community engagement,” according to a flier for the event.

At the library, I found Coston, who said of the district's many troubles: “It makes me sad. This is where I'm from.”

Coston was student council president for two years and captain of the volleyball team. She described her high school years as “pretty good.”

She singled out instructors such as social studies teacher Dominic Woods as good mentors. But overall, she said, “We needed better teachers.”

Asked if the district deserves its reputation, she said, “I have mixed feelings. There definitely are good people there, but it's also pretty bad there.”

Since graduation, Coston has been saving money to study interior design at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“I've worked at a nursing home, and I've provided in-home care,” she said.

Coston seems poised for the success that other recent Wilkinsburg grads undoubtedly also enjoy. But is the success they achieve because of their district experiences, or in spite of them?

Coston might have answered that when she responded to my first question: What should be done with Wilkinsburg School District?

“We just need to shut the school system down,” she said.

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

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