Deputy Superintendent Linda Lane and Assisstant Superintendent Derrick Lopez address a room of about 60 Northsiders at the Pittsburgh Project. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)

At a public meeting on the school board’s proposal to close Rooney Middle School and move Morrow into the Rooney building on Jan. 26, about 60 parents, concerned citizens and school district staffers came up with an alternate plan: turn Morrow into a K-8 in the Rooney building.

One community member asked Deputy Superintendent Linda Lane and Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Schools Derrick Lopez why, if their plan included turning Northview Elementary into a K-8, they weren’t considering the same with Morrow?

The entire room shouted “Yes!” in unison and both Lane and Lopez were taken aback with the overwhelming response.

The school board’s proposal for the Morrow-Rooney situation, based loosely off of a DeJong, Inc. study on how best to use physical assets, would affect more than just Morrow and Rooney, and the community felt that turning Morrow into a K-8 would have the least impact on the neighborhood and the district.

“We need a school in the neighborhood, one that our kids can call their own,” said one mother.

Rooney, which only has about 150 students currently enrolled (54 of them in eighth grade), would close entirely in the 2010-11 school year. Its sixth- and seventh-graders would have a choice to finish middle school in Allegheny 6-8, Schiller 6-8 or Pittsburgh Classical 6-8, which is in the West End.

Morrow would move, entirely intact, staff, students and all, into the Rooney building a block away in the 2011-12 school year after some renovations to the Rooney building.

Lopez, who disseminated the plan via PowerPoint, said that only seven students from Morrow and one from Spring Hill had chosen to go to Rooney for the 2009-10 school year. Most of Rooney’s students come from Northview Elementary.

Because of that, the board wants to grow Northview into a K-8 school. Next year, Lopez said, Northview fifth-graders would simply become Northview sixth-graders, and seventh-graders the next year, and then finally eighth-graders.

Spring Hill would be given feeder pattern preference to Schiller Academy, which is located in nearby Spring Garden. Morrow would be given feeder pattern preference to Allegheny 6-8 in Allegheny Commons.

“We sought best to honor the choices of those kids,” who weren’t choosing Rooney, Lane said about the plan.

One seventh grade girl who attends Rooney rebuffed Lane. “I don’t want to lose my school,” she said. “I like my teachers, and I like the students.”

Several community members, including another Rooney seventh-grader, expressed concern over the fact that both Schiller and Allegheny are magnet schools, which means they follow a specialized curriculum in addition to the district’s core curriculum.

Lopez assured them the school system would accommodate all students if they followed the plan, but the question was one of many that was never entirely resolved.

Shortly after the presentation, the idea to turn Morrow into a K-8 emerged, and many community members gave reasons why it was a good idea.

One woman said combining the schools would save Rooney’s reputation, because the student population would be Brighton Heights kids, and therefore parents would be able to stay involved longer.

Another woman said, “If [closing a school] hurts one of us, it hurts all of us, and I want us to stay united.”

Throughout the night, Lane, Lopez and the school board received vehement criticism on the choice of location for the meeting, held in Perry Hilltop at the Pittsburgh Project, and the Dec. 21 public hearing held in Oakland. The room agreed that the meeting should have been held in Brighton Heights, in one of the affected school buildings.

Lane explained the board chose the Pittsburgh Project because it was between Brighton Heights and Northview Heights and Spring Hill, the three affected neighborhoods.

Northside Leadership Conference Executive Director Mark Fatla and school board member Mark Brentley both asked why the board was rushing its decision, and why it was so difficult to hold off on any action for one year to give the board time to come up with a comprehensive plan that looked at all city schools.

Council President Darlene Harris also attended the meeting, and criticized the board for ignoring the needs of the neighborhoods and its children. Members from both the Brighton Heights Citizens Federation and the Brightwood Civic Council agreed with her sentiments.

At the end of the meeting, Lane promised to take the community suggestion to turn Morrow into a K-8 to the board, although she couldn’t promise another public meeting before the board votes on March 24.