The Woodland Hills School District has ranked among the top 10 districts nationwide for elementary school suspensions. Two years ago, several district and school leaders were sued by former students for incidents of alleged abuse at the hands of a former school police officer and a former high school principal.
The school district east of Pittsburgh has been plagued by poor academic performance and a disproportionate use of harsh disciplinary practices, but community members hope a new superintendent will help turn the district around. The school board began a national search in May.
Al Johnson, who led the district for seven years, is resigning at the end of June.
“I did think that it would be a good thing for the school district to reset or reboot if you will and start new,” he said. “If my stepping down could give the district that opportunity, that chance, then I think it was something that was worthwhile doing.”
Woodland Hills integrated in 1981 when a federal court order in the name of desegregation merged 12 municipalities into one district. Mostly white, affluent students joined a mostly black, poorer district. Now, 63 percent of the district's students are black and 28 percent are white. About 63 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.
Many issues Woodland Hills faces today stem from how those communities dealt with that move, according to Summer Lee, a 2005 Woodland Hills High School graduate. The civil rights attorney recently won her first Democratic primary for the State House.
In high school, Lee said her teachers set low expectations. She took all Advanced Placement courses but was never recommended for the gifted program.
“Lots of kids had a wonderful experience and great opportunities at that school, but there were also a lot of kids who live right next door to me or in my own family who were easily sliding below the radar,” she said. “I think that it's consistent just throughout the history of the school.”
Last summer, five African American former students filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging their white principal and school police officer abused them. The principal, Kevin Murray, resigned before the school year began and the officer was removed from the school by the Churchill Police Department.
The students’ attorney, Todd Hollis, released videos to the public showing students being shocked with a Taser, slammed into a locker and put in a chokehold.
The students say the district perpetuated a racially-biased culture.
Lee said the new leader of the district must deal with that charge head-on.
She was on a commission formed last year to evaluate the district. Lee said Woodland Hills faces a lot of the same issues other urban districts face – high suspension rates, lower test scores and implicit bias.
“We have to do radical change here because we have a radical problem here,” she said. “And that might mean looking into alternative methods — being radical and our shifting educational goals and our teaching goals and our staff hiring.”
Christopher Reyes, 15, said fighting is an issue in the high school.
"Kids, they don't care about you,” he said. “There are bullies that want to keep you down. You got to be tough."
He has been a Woodland Hills student since kindergarten and said he never felt engaged in school. His younger sister Emma, 11, is also sometimes bored. She complains about behavior issues and unfair disciplinary practices.
“Sometimes you can get punished so easily,” she said. “They have these tables (during lunch) for kids, and if they get in trouble, they have to go sit by themselves and they don’t know why. It’s not fair.”
But, Micah Fancher,17, said overall, he likes the high school. He is going to be a senior next year. He said he wishes there was more academic support.
“Because some people take, like, honors and AP classes, then they’ll be struggling the whole year,” Fancher said. “Sometimes the school doesn’t help.”
Fancher and the Reyes siblings live in Wilkins Township.
They’re from different backgrounds but have similar concerns. Their parents have all considered pulling their children out of the district.
Mary Reyes also has concerns about transportation for special needs students like her youngest son. She’s brought those issues up to administrators in the past.
Board President Jaime Glasser said she knows students are leaving. She hopes, though, that change will start with a new leader.
“There’s a lot of trust we have to build back. There’s no shying away from that,” she said. “But I think we’re willing to do it.”
Glassner sat in the middle of a hot gymnasium a few weeks ago listening to community members prioritize what qualities they want in their next superintendent.
About a dozen people nodded as Darnika Reed, Micah’s mom, spoke over a loud fan.
She said they need someone who is present and willing to listen to the community.
Reed’s youngest daughter attends a charter school. She considered pulling her son out of the high school during the peak of the abuse allegations. But she said she spoke up at school board meetings, and she is hopeful change is coming.
“I never thought I would say that,” she said.
She wants someone who listens to the community, who has had cultural competency training and who will make research-based changes.
“We need someone who understands what they’re walking into and who understands that all of the children need to be taken care of,” she said.
At the community meeting, the head of the superintendent search firm agreed. He nodded his head and told the room that he is confident the board will find the right person that will help the communities heal.
The board plans to have a final candidate selected by the end of July.