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O'Connor opens dialogue with students

| Friday, April 7, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

Mayor Bob O'Connor isn't all business all the time. He can hang out, too.

O'Connor dished with 20 area high school students Thursday on problems the youngsters face, ranging from gun violence to after-school tutoring and recreation.

Yesterday's brainstorming session was aimed at creating a youth commission -- one of O'Connor's campaign promises -- composed of high school and possibly college students who would regularly advise the mayor and his staff on what it's like growing up in and around the 'Burgh.

"I'm not here to solve all the problems. I'm here to open up a dialogue," O'Connor told the group of primarily student council presidents from area Catholic, public and creative arts schools.

He said improving students' learning opportunities would benefit Pittsburgh's economy. "If we had the best educated kids in America, companies would flock here."

Stephen Opara, 17, a senior at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, told O'Connor that students need more recreation centers and summer job opportunities.

"I think it's a start, getting to share our opinions," he said of yesterday's discussion.

The students collectively picked public safety and after-school tutoring as their top priorities.

Keirstin Kuhlman, 17, a senior at Vincentian Academy in McCandless, encouraged the commission's volunteer organizer and chairwoman, Marty Isler of Squirrel Hill, to include a diverse group of students if the group is formed.

"I think it's so important to make it easily accessible to anyone who wants to know what's going on," she said.

Isler said she would schedule a second meeting in mid-May, when she plans to host schools expert Cliff Johnson of the Washington D.C.-based National League of Cities. She's not sure how many students would make up the commission, which could meet four to six times a year.

"I think probably we should listen to students more often than we do -- and I include myself in the group that should probably do that more often," said Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, who chatted with O'Connor and students.

Roosevelt said the commission could address specific problems, such as how to make a particular school safer, or how to make teachers more accountable to students.

"Being in central office can isolate you from kids," Roosevelt said. "This is a great thing, but these are obviously class presidents. It's a different perspective, I think, than you might get from a broader range of high school students."

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