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District hopes to establish its unity

| Sunday, May 11, 2003

Edgewood resident Stephen Zelenko, 41, still remembers the rancor that ran through communities in the eastern suburbs when Woodland Hills School District was formed by federal court order 22 years ago.

The 1980 Edgewood High School graduate said some people from the former Churchill and Edgewood school districts still harbor resentments about the merger. "Edgewood was a unique community and parents had a lot of involvement in the school district, and now parents don't," Zelenko said.

To settle a federal lawsuit that claimed that school districts in the eastern suburbs were racially segregated, U. S. District Judge Gerald Weber ruled in April 1981 that four primarily white districts -- Churchill Area, Edgewood, Swissvale Area and Turtle Creek Area -- merge with the mostly black General Braddock district. The order became final in August of that year and what was initially called "The New District" began its first school year in fall 1981.

The case not only outlived Weber, but also Dorothy Hoots, one of a group of Braddock parents who filed the lawsuit and whose name the case bears.

But the protracted legal case could finally come to an end before this summer is out. On Monday, attorneys for the district will enter a federal courtroom to begin arguments that are expected to result in Woodland Hills finally emerging from under federal court supervision.

U.S. Senior District Judge Maurice Cohill, who took over the case following Weber's death in 1989, ruled in 2000 that the district had done almost everything necessary to end the federal oversight. Cohill, however, found remnants of tracking -- grouping students as high, average or low achievers -- in the secondary mathematics program. Minority students generally made up a higher percentage of students in the lower levels, contributing to an achievement gap between blacks and whites.

District officials say that all seventh- and eighth-grade students now have the opportunity to take higher-level math courses in high school, something that wasn't true three years ago.

When the court supervision ends, the last remnants of court-ordered positions will be dropped. At least four teaching positions in the district's remedial math labs and two guidance counselor positions will be dropped at the end of this year. But Woodland Hills High School Principal Howard Weber said that the district still is going to try to offer math labs to students who need them by rescheduling teachers if necessary.

"It's essential for them," Weber said. "We're going to try to make something work for them."

Weber said 300 to 400 students per year use the math labs.

With an enrollment of about 5,800 students, Woodland Hills is one of Allegheny County's largest suburban districts. The district serves Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek and Wilkins.

Woodland Hills is the only district in the state formed by federal court order, according to data provided by the Harvard University-based Civil Rights Project. However, numerous districts throughout the country were formed because of desegregation orders or have been overseen by federal judges.

According to the Civil Rights Project, between 1990 and 2002, federal judges ruled that 47 school districts throughout the country have done all or part of what is necessary to desegregate schools. Of those 47 districts, 39 have been declared fully integrated.

Although Woodland Hills is one of eight school districts that have not yet achieved so-called "unitary status," that doesn't mean it is necessarily a laggard, according to professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project.

"There is no standard time frame," Orfield said. "Some of the Southern orders date to the early 1960s. It is all about the judgment of the courts about whether or not the requirements of the order have been fulfilled to the extent possible or a reasonable length of time."

Although the district appears poised to have a formal ruling that it has achieved its goal of full integration, the attributes that make up a well-educated student have nothing to do with court orders or school budgets, some parents said.

"Learning begins at home and if the home doesn't set the precedent, then there's nothing they can do at school," said JoAnn Seman, 45, of Forest Hills.

Seman, a white graduate of the old Churchill High School, can remember when Forest Hills students were thought of as the less well-to-do students by their more well-heeled classmates from Churchill.

For Tracy Horn, 34, who is black and a Braddock parent of four Woodland Hills School students, whether her sons and daughter get the proper treatment from teachers and administrators is entirely up to her.

"I think that if I'm not there to push things through, they won't go the extra mile to help," Horn said.

By the numbers


Woodland Hills School District statistics, then and now:

Racial makeup in 1981-1982, the first school year of the new district

  • Black students: 1,440, or about 18 percent
  • White students: 6,602, or about 81 percent
  • All others: 65
  • Total enrollment: 8,107

    Racial makeup in 2001-02, the most recent state figures available

  • Black students: 3,072, or about 50 percent
  • White students: 2,921, or about 48 percent
  • All others: 97
  • Total enrollment: 6,090

    Racial makeup of the 12 communities that comprise the district in 2000

  • Black: 11,045, or about 21 percent
  • White: 41,230, or about 79 percent

    Teachers

  • Average salary 1981-82: $20,907
  • Average salary 2001-02: $54,527
  • Number of teachers 1981-82: 619
  • Number of teachers 2001-02: 468

    Money

  • 1981-82 budget: $27.7 million
  • 2002-03 budget: $65 million
  • 2003-04 proposed budget: $64.8 million
  • 1981-82 property tax on a $50,000 home: $812.50
  • 2002-03 property tax bill on a $50,000 home: $1,095
  • 2003-04 proposed tax on a $50,000 home: $1,208

    Racial makeup of selected other districts in Allegheny County:

    Mt. Lebanon

  • White: 5,296, or about 94.5 percent
  • Black: 65, or about 1 percent
  • All others: 236, or about 4.2 percent
  • Total enrollment: 5,597

    North Hills (Ross and West View)

  • White: 4,678 or about 96 percent
  • Black: 95, or about 2 percent
  • All others: 101, or about 2 percent
  • Total enrollment: 4,874

    Wilkinsburg

  • White: 37, or about 2 percent
  • Black: 1,704, or about 97 percent
  • All others: 5
  • Total enrollment: 1,746

    Sources: Pennsylvania Department of Education, U.S. Census

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