Wilkinsburg's superintendent concedes difficulties, pledges change
The children listened quietly as the superintendent of the Wilkinsburg School District read a book to them on a sunny morning.
After Archie D. Perrin Jr. finished “My Friend Bear,” he asked questions of the inquisitive bunch at Turner Elementary School.
“Who are your friends?”
The youngsters politely raised their hands before answering.
Some might say the scene contradicts Wilkinsburg's reputation. With poor test scores, absenteeism and a host of other social ills, Wilkinsburg is one of Allegheny County's, if not the state's, most difficult school systems.
A study released in June by the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg labeled it the most violent in Pennsylvania, with a rate of 47.23 incidents per 100 students. The foundation cited the data as a reason to support school choice.
The state last week opened the door to some students to leave Wilkinsburg schools. Its five schools in operation in 2010-11 all were among 53 in Allegheny County identified as being low-achieving, based on state math and reading test scores.
That means that in 2012-13, students may apply for scholarships to attend other schools that do better.
Perrin sees that as yet another siphoning of money away from the district he is trying to right, a task he acknowledges is not easy.
“The John Q. Public is asking me to undo over 30 years of a system that had very little structure to it,” said Perrin, 61, superintendent since 2006.
“We are nowhere near where we want to be academically. But we do have structures in place to deal with what should have been dealt with … years ago,” he said.
Good and bad
Parents and others acknowledge that Perrin deals daily with a tough situation. With a poverty rate of nearly 22 percent and a serious-crime rate nearly twice the state average, the borough of about 16,000 has many students who bring emotional burdens to school, they say.
“Somebody needs to go where they are, to kind of help be a bridge from the streets to some of the other things in the community that could help them,” said George Spencer, 57, of Wilkinsburg, who founded a chapter of MAD DADS, composed of men who do “community-based mentoring on the street.”
Some say the district is misunderstood.
“The education is getting better,” said Camille Simpson, 13, who is in a gifted program at Wilkinsburg Middle School.
Perrin said that during his tenure, the district has added structure, defined curriculums and teacher accountability, and recently announced new programs.
Critics say not enough is being done to prepare children for college and a global economy. They partly blame Perrin.
During her graduation speech last month, 2012 valedictorian Indya Stewart blasted the district and Perrin for providing what she called substandard education.
“But what I said wasn't to be shady. It was just being honest,” said Stewart, 18, who will attend The University of Findlay in Ohio.
In the past decade, about 300 students have left the district to attend cyber and charter schools. That cost the district $3 million in state money, said Bruce Dakan, director of business affairs.
Perrin said any superintendent who came to Wilkinsburg would do what he's doing.
“I will not and cannot run away from the responsibility of leading the school district,” he said.
Perrin has good intentions, said Mike Evans, 59, president of the Wilkinsburg Education Association and a teacher in the district for 36 years.
“I think that he would like very much to continue to help the school district improve,” Evans said.
School board members either could not be reached for comment or refused to speak.
Board President Karen Payne said all statements about the district must come from Perrin.
Wilkinsburg has little racial or economic diversity. It is two-thirds black, resulting from “white flight,” which accelerated in the 1990s as gang-related crime surged, Evans said.
Poverty cannot be minimized when it comes to school performance, and there is no sure fix, said Will Jordan, associate professor of urban education at Temple University.
“The problems that schools face are big social problems, so we need policy making that cuts across education, employment, housing,” he said.
The borough's gang violence has subsided, and neighborhoods are getting new and rehabilitated housing, officials say.
But it is difficult to attract businesses with a school district's property tax rate of 36.672 mills, said Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. and a Wilkinsburg council member. That's the highest tax rate among the 43 districts wholly in Allegheny County; it's 27 percent higher than the No. 2 rate in South Fayette School District.
That leads to a lack of students and money.
Perrin has experience with both problems.
He began his career in 1973, teaching math in the Duquesne City School District, a district plagued by many of the problems Wilkinsburg faces. The state took over Duquesne schools and closed its high school.
He left to become a principal in Wilkinsburg and rose to assistant superintendent before becoming superintendent.
He said changing the district's culture is among his goals. That includes encouraging parental involvement, and implementing policies such as requiring uniforms, which begins in the fall for middle school and high school students, he said.
Many behavioral issues are linked to appearance, such as bullying because children aren't wearing name-brand clothing, Perrin said.
Also, in June, the school board approved buying computer software to let parents remotely check absences, disciplinary actions and homework assignments, as well as to communicate with teachers.
With an $886,696 grant from the state Department of Education in April, Wilkinsburg will target literacy among pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade students in an immersion approach, Perrin said.
New middle school and high school principals have been named, too, he said.
“Once parents begin to see the structure and the academic achievement — the safety issue will be addressed, the uniform issue will be addressed, the culture will be changed.
“No one really wants to send their child out of the school district,” he said.
Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.