Middle schoolers from Milliones 6-12 will remain at the Hill District school next year, after the Pittsburgh Public School Board rejected a proposal that would have sent them to Arsenal 6-8 in Lawrenceville.
Instead, Pittsburgh Public School administrators will spend the next school year working with Hill District community leaders to make Milliones, also known as University Preparatory School or UPrep, successful.
Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s administration had originally asked the board to split the school and send Milliones 6-8 graders to Arsenal 6-8 starting next year.
During Wednesday’s school board meeting Hamlet amended the plan and proposed that the merger would take effect in 2020. That plan was rejected.
Board member Sala Udin asked that students remain in the Hill District and instead that administrators would take a year to develop a “plan for success” at UPrep. That proposal was approved in a 7-2 vote with Cynthia Falls and Sylvia Wilson voting against the amended proposal.
Board member Regina Holley noted that administrators could come back next year and again ask to send the middle schoolers to Arsenal 6-8.
Hamlet told the board he amended the merger start date after community members voiced concern.
“While I know the transition to Pittsburgh Arsenal will provide middle schoolers in the Milliones feeder pattern an enriched educational option, I’m committed to working with families and the community to make sure that no stone is unturned in planning a successful transition for students,” Hamlet said in a statement he read to the board.
The move would have affected nearly 100 of the school’s 400 students. Nearly 90 percent of Milliones students are black and 88 percent are considered economically disadvantaged by the state. Currently, only 18 percent of students assigned to attend the U Prep middle school are enrolled at the school, according to the district.
The name University Preparatory School hearkens back to a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh. Board members and residents have criticized that partnership saying nothing has come from the agreement.
District leaders argued that if the school solely served high school students, the school would have been able to prioritize a college-going culture. Deputy Superintendent Anthony Anderson told the board last week that it planned to strengthen its relationship with the Community College of Allegheny County to offer college-level courses to high school students.
Hamlet said when he was hired in 2016 he was charged with turning Milliones around. His administration proposed moving students to Arsenal because he said it has a track record for growing student achievement. The school has been among the top 15 percent of schools in the state five years in a row for improving student achievement.
“(Arsenal has) a high population of immigrant students who come and they don’t know English. They might not be proficient yet, but their growth as far as becoming literate readers and in math and science and literary arts far exceeds that at University Prep,” Hamlet told WESA’s The Confluence Tuesday.
The move had been criticized as being rushed and without adequate community input. Udin represents the Hill District on the school board. He has said that the rushed process could have unintended consequences as he said important factors such as historic tensions between the two neighborhoods hadn’t been properly considered.
Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said Hamlet told her about the intended plan in May.
“The superintendent mentioned it to me very quietly in a conversation and asked me to keep it under my hat maybe a couple of weeks before it broke. He said it was just in the beginning conversation maybe in the beginning of May. Beginning or middle of May,” she said.
After that conversation, she said it was not discussed until a later May board meeting, when she said teachers also found out. Both Esposito-Visgitis and Hamlet said that no teacher would have lost their job if the move were approved.
Hamlet said conversations had been in the works for some time. He said the district decided it needed to happen soon, as the middle school students would have more opportunities at Arsenal.
“At some point you have to pull the trigger, but we’ve been having these conversations with board members since last fall. But at some point, once you begin to pull the trigger, people think it’s all of a sudden. But we’ve been having these conversations since the fall,” he said.
James Fogarty, the director of the advocacy group A+ Schools, told the board at a public hearing this week that he supported moving students from U Prep.
“We have collectively failed the students that have attended this school. The right leadership, coordination of supports, and team were rarely if ever present in the building. And let’s be clear, this is a feature not a bug of our system,” he said.
Fogarty told the board that while Arsenal is not perfect, it is “leaps and bounds better than what is currently offered at Uprep.”
“As you all figure out what makes sense in the long term for the Hill, and whether you’re willing to change the work, transfer, funding, and other rules that fail schools like UPrep, the children should not suffer in a school that doesn’t work for them,” he said.
Board members have also suggested re-evaluating the way the district assigns students to schools. Pittsburgh is unique as it has few middle schools. School models range from K-5, K-8, 6-8, 6-12 and 9-12.
Hamlet said the variety of schools came from a right sizing plan approved in 2006 which closed schools and consolidated others.
“We used to have middle schools, previously,” Hamlet said. “But the right sizing era came and a lot of schools were closed, they kind of hodge-podged some things, and they created these 6 through 12s and these k through 8 schools, conceivably to save money as you close down schools. To me, based on the history and what I’m reading, there wasn’t any real focus put on the needs of the students in the right-sizing process.”
At Wednesday's meeting the board also approved student code of conduct changes to include language involving student protests.
Superintendent Anthony Hamlet says he doesn’t think it will dissuade student activism.
“If we allow kids to just walk out without parent permission, we’re liable. We understand your rights, but work with us together, get parent permission so you’re parent knows where you’re going as well. Ultimately we want to make sure kids are safe,” Hamlet said.
Hundreds of Pittsburgh students left classrooms in the past two years in response to the Parkland Florida School Shooting and the fatal killing of teen Antwon Rose.