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City schools' future uncertain as enrollment dwindles

| Saturday, June 28, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

The city school board cannot lock away a looming problem by closing Schenley High School.

The Oakland school might be only the first the board will need to shutter or find another use for.

Enrollment in Pittsburgh Public Schools is expected to plunge from about 75,000 students in 1967 to 22,435 in 2016, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The problem: a declining birth rate, an exodus of families from the city and growing popularity of charter schools.

As a result, students occupy only 72 percent of seats in the district's high schools -- even fewer in some schools.

With 385 students enrolled, only 38 percent of seats at Westinghouse High School in Homewood are used. Similarly, 46 percent of seats at Peabody in East Liberty are occupied; 57 percent at Langley in Sheraden; and 69 percent at Oliver in Marshall-Shadeland.

Westinghouse underwent a $25.8 million renovation within the past decade, but nearly two-thirds of the building is empty.

School board President William Isler said there is no consensus on the board on what to do with the underused schools.

"If you look at the data, it's clear that we'll have to deal with the issue of excess capacity. I've been on the board for nine years, and this is my fourth school closing. We went many years with no school closing.

"We need to rein in the issue of the buildings we have, the programs we want to offer and the number of students we have to serve."

The district has begun meeting with people in Homewood and the North Side to talk about Oliver, Perry and Westinghouse. This school year, officials will meet with people in the West End and South Side to discuss Langley, Brashear and Carrick high schools.

"I don't think we're using the word 'closing' but we're telling them about the challenges we're facing and trying to come up with solutions together," said district spokeswoman Lisa Fischetti.

"Eventually, as we bring more choices online for families to choose from, students and families will make the choices for us."

This fall, the district will open a University Prep 6-12 school at Milliones in the Hill District; Reizenstein in East Liberty for students who attended Schenley; and a robotics program at Peabody.

In fall 2009, the district will open a Science and Technology 6-12 Academy at Frick in Oakland; temporarily start a 6-12 International Baccalaureate program at Reizenstein; and merge the middle school Creative and Performing Arts program with CAPA High School, Downtown.

"We can't bring on new choices and keep everything the same, because we're not going to have enough kids to fill all the new options as well as all the old options," Fischetti said.

"I can't say we won't propose to close a school in the next year, depending on what the student achievement data show and what the enrollment data are," she said.

District officials have said they want to close Vann K-8 in the Hill District in 2009 and send its students to U-Prep, Miller or Weil elementary schools.

"It's perfectly reasonable, it's perfectly logical, for any taxpayer to understand that one of the challenges this district is facing is to improve the efficiency of building utilization," said Christopher Berdnik, chief financial officer for the district.

"That's as close as I'm going to get to telling you that we'll be closing schools."

In terms of size, the school district is a shadow of its former self. In 1967, it had about 75,000 students, compared to 28,265 last school year.

"In a lot of ways, the school district is a mirror image of the city and the borough it serves," Berdnik said. "It's no secret that in Western Pennsylvania, you have a graying population and birth rates have been low."

A recent report prepared for the district by McKinsey & Company, which has an office in Pittsburgh, notes that Pittsburgh lost 13,961 people ages 18 to 64, and 14,258 people younger than 18 between 2000 and 2006.

"For families, perceived quality of public schools is often the most important factor driving the decision of where to live (though other factors such as tax rates and crime also play a role)," the report states. "Those families increasingly believe that Pittsburgh Public Schools are not as good as those in surrounding communities.

"As middle-income families have left the city, it has reinforced the negative perceptions of school quality."

Many students are going to charter schools, which are public schools free of some of the state regulations and contract requirements of regular schools.

In 10 years, the number of city students attending charter schools has grown from 304 in 1998 to 2,081. That number is expected to rise to 2,500 this fall, when The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park opens in the former Regent Square School.

Berdnik was quick to note that the district might not necessarily shut down underutilized schools. He said the district opened South Hills Middle School in the late 1990s in Brashear High School.

"We are clearly looking at underenrolled schools and regions to determine what is the best deployment of our facilities," he said.

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