Council President Darlene Harris speaks her mind at a March 3 meeting on the closing of Rooney Middle School. (Photo/Henry Clay Webster)
Jennifer Hicks, a young mother of a first-grader at Morrow K-5, held nothing back when she told Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators the demoralizing effect their plan to close Rooney Middle School was having on her.
“The Pittsburgh Promise can’t hold me here, if I don’t think my daughter is getting the education she deserves. I’m getting really tired of this rearranging. There’s no stability,” said Hicks, who said she has discussed leaving the city with her husband because of the school system’s inclination for constant school closings.
The roomful of parents and neighbors were equally as exasperated at a second meeting, held at Emannuel Christian Church on March 3, on the closing of Rooney.
The middle school is an accelerated learning academy that administrators want to close because of declining student enrollment. Their plan is to shift Morrow — just a few blocks away in Brighton Heights — intact into Rooney’s building to forestall an estimated $17 million in renovation costs to the Morrow building.
But the message was clear: Brighton Heights wants an extra year to work with administrators to craft a strategy that works for their neighborhood, not in spite of their neighborhood.
John James, who has children in Pittsburgh Public Schools, said that school officials were closing schools according to low enrollment rather than fixing the problems that cause low enrollment. He criticized officials’ plans to build an addition on Northview PreK-5 to make it a PreK-8.
“If you offer a school that is better than what you now offer, you’ll have outsize enrollment there,” James said.
Rooney consists primarily of former Northview students, many of whom have behavior problems and are behind in academics. And although it is the only remaining feeder pattern middle school on the Northside for Northview PreK-5, Morrow K-5 and Spring Hill K-5, very few students from Morrow or Spring Hill currently attend Rooney.
What seemed to rile the crowd most was administrators’ Linda Lane, deputy superintendent, and Derrick Lopez, assistant superintendant for secondary schools, quick dismissal of the crowd’s plea from the previous meeting on Jan. 26 for a new K-8 at the Rooney building.
Lane and Lopez gave a PowerPoint presentation that showed the full capacity of the Rooney building at 450 students.
With Morrow K-5 already at 390 students, not including a PreK program, and estimates of Rooney 6-8’s enrollment for next year at 128, the building could not accommodate a K-8 program, Lopez said.
“You could just adjust the feeder pattern,” said Mark Fatla, head of the Northside Leadership Conference.
“Or you could just add on to Rooney. We have lots of room,” said Naomi Wells, a teacher at Rooney.
But it was clear the administrators didn’t have information about either option and they said they would try to research both options for the next meeting, scheduled for March 15 at 7 p.m. at the Board of Education building in Oakland.
When questioned about why the school board and Superintendant Mark Roosevelt were moving ahead on Rooney’s closing so swiftly and only consulting parents as an afterthought, Lopez said, “When you get schools under 200 students, that limits the programs we can offer the students. That’s where the urgency comes from.”
But the crowd didn’t like the answer, and when Lopez admitted that Vann K-5 in the Hill District was getting an extra year before a scheduled closing, Fatla yelled, “That’s what we want here.”
From then on, the collective response from the community was to beg the administrators to hold off the closing for a year.
“Give the community a year to better understand the options,” said John Canning, a Central Northsider. People make decisions with their feet. We don’t want young families to leave.”
That’s just what Mark Milsop, a Brighton Heights resident with an 8-month old daughter, said he would do.
“If you want me to stay in the city, I want my daughter to have options to go to a school in her neighborhood,” Milsop said.
Once the crowd was revved up, City Council President Darlene Harris, and a former school board member, walked to the front of the pews and took over the meeting like a veteran Baptist minister.
“When we closed 10 schools, enrollment went down. Then we closed 21 schools, and enrollment went down,” Harris said. “All that’s happening is our children are being shuffled around like cattle.”
Harris pleaded with the crowd to attend the next school board meeting on March 15 in Oakland. “Bring a friend. Make them stay until midnight.”
School board member Mark Brentley accused another board member in attendance, Floyd “Skip” McCrea, of not voting for his measure to stop Rooney from closing until a closing study could be expanded to include schools from the entire district.
McCrea said he would only vote to stall the closing of Rooney for one year.
To speak at the March 15 school board meeting, call 412-622-3600 starting on Monday, March 8 and no later than noon on Monday, March 15. Each person is allotted 3 minutes to address the board.