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Will Switching From A Neighborhood To A Magnet School Bring Students Back To Woolslair?

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA
Woolslair Principal Lisa Gallagher leads an assembly on the last day of the 2014-15 school year.

In two years, Pittsburgh’s Woolslair Elementary has gone from the verge of closure to one of the cornerstones of the district’s new STEAM initiative. Woolslair will become a partial magnet school focusing on science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

Matthew Allman, 9, will soon be in the fourth grade at the school, and right now, he’s not totally sure what STEAM even means.

“Is there stuff about velociraptors?” he says. “As long as it’s something like a spinosaurus or something like that, I’m in.”

Like many kids his age, Matthew is really into dinosaurs; also, volcanoes and outer space.

He’s gone to Woolslair since kindergarten, and he’s excited to be moving into Ms. Jenkins’ class, who he calls one of the best teachers in the school.

Matthew’s mom Valerie Allman says Janet Jenkins is just one amazing teacher among many at Woolslair.

“He loves his teachers, all of them,” Allman said. “They’ve all been enormously helpful. They’ve gone above and beyond anything they would even remotely be required to do to help him to grow socially, to grow in his education, to mature. They’ve been absolutely wonderful.”

Allman said when she found out in November 2013 that the Pittsburgh Public Schools board of directors had voted to close the school, she was devastated.

“We were all worried about what was going to happen with our kids, the transition to a different school … (and) if there was going to be overcrowding," she said. "We were worried we weren’t going to get the same kind of dynamic that we already had at Woolslair, which is a really, really high quality.”

That warm, nurturing climate did little to stymie a plummet in enrollment. Data shows Woolslair lost more than 50 percent of its student population in the last five years. At the beginning of last school year, there were a little more than 100 kids attending six grades combined.

Meanwhile, the number of students living in the Woolslair feeder pattern but attending magnet schools crept up, doubling between 2005 and 2010. Last year, 125 opted instead to enroll in neighboring magnet schools; Montessori alone absorbed 70 kids.

Last year, more than 7,500 Pittsburgh Public School children — nearly one-third of the district's total enrollment — chose a magnet school over their neighborhood school.

Richard Engel's daughter, Tova, started at Dilworth in kindergarten and now goes to Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School. He's among a growing number of PPS parents who consider a magnet school to be the only acceptable public school option.

“If she had not gotten into a magnet, we’d have sent her to private school for a year and re-applied a year later,” he said.

Engel doesn’t consider himself to be in the private school income bracket, but he said there was no way he was sending Tova to Arsenal Elementary, which was her feeder school at the time.

“The reputation of Arsenal was terrible," he said. "That it was a dangerous place, that it was a place where kids fought a lot and there were discipline problems.”

All three of Engel’s kids now go to magnet schools. His step-daughter, Abby, will be in 7th grade at Obama Academy of International Studies, and his son, Desi, starts 6th grade at Science and Technology Academy this month.

Engel says getting Desi into a magnet for middle school wasn’t easy.

“You have to put down three choices and he put down SciTech in Oakland for his first choice, Obama for his second choice and Sterrett for his third choice, and he didn’t get into any of them,” Engel said.

Desi was 2nd on the waiting list at SciTech. Engel said he called the school district every few weeks for an update.

“I think this is just how it works,” he said. “It’s stressful, but I think it’s standard."

Twenty-one-year Chicago Public Schools veteran Victor Harbison said “how it works” is hurting neighborhood schools.

In 2009, Harbison wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times questioning the magnet school model altogether. He said magnet schools tend to attract the highest achieving kids and the most engaged parents, taking them out of the neighborhood school community.

“Why didn’t they do it the other way around?” he asked.

Harbison said districts should have left neighborhood schools intact, and instead created alternative schools for the minority of kids with academic or behavioral challenges.

“If we had created a system where you pulled those kids out of the building and sent them to the alternative school, there’s a chance a bunch of them would actually get the education they need,” he said.

But boosting student achievement wasn’t the sole motivation behind the creation of magnet schools in the first place, according to John Laughner, legislative and communications director for Magnet Schools of America. Magnet schools were conceptualized in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to voluntarily promote school desegregation.

Laughner argued against the assertion that magnet schools “cream” the best students from neighborhood schools, especially at the elementary and middle school levels, but acknowledged that they do tend to out perform their neighborhood counterparts.

“We encourage all school districts to become whole magnet schools districts,” Laughner said.

For now, Pittsburgh's plans aren't so extreme. District officials have said they’re committed to improving neighborhood schools, and the district-wide STEAM initiative will help achieve that goal.

“This isn’t just about a few schools or learning how to navigate a system for one particular set of families," said Brian Smith, the district’s executive director of strategic priorities. "We want to make sure we have access for all of our students to … a high quality education.”

The initiative is funded by the Grable Foundation, which also supports 90.5 WESA, and the Pittsburgh Fund for Excellence, and is meant to directly affect every school in the district.

Woolslair was uniquely positioned to benefit from that STEAM initiative. Principal Lisa Gallagher said a couple dozen kindergartners from outside the feeder pattern have signed up to attend the school this year, already more than doubling last year’s kindergarten enrollment.

Woolslair is starting as a magnet for kindergarten, first and second grade students only, and will add one grade each year. But it will also still be a neighborhood school, Gallagher said.

“We wanted to remain a neighborhood school because those are the parents that pushed to keep us open. They fought for us, they wanted STEAM, and they shouldn’t be penalized for that, so … we are still the neighborhood and a magnet,” Gallagher said. “Without them we would truly not be here.”

Gallagher credited parents like Valerie Allman, who scrapped to keep Woolslair open.

But there's just one thing — Allman’s family isn’t in the Woolslair feeder pattern. They moved from Bloomfield to Troy Hill just before Matthew started kindergarten, and were able to enroll him in Woolslair through the district’s school of choice program because of his neighborhood school’s low test scores.

Allman said she's hopeful her 2-year-old daughter, Lily, will eventually get into Woolslair, too.

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