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On Halloween, Mark Roosevelt, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, announced that he's attempting again to close Schenley High School and move its students out of Oakland into existing Middle School buildings in East Liberty and the Hill District
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11-04-07 'Dropout factories': Must ZIP code be destiny?

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 11, 2007 8:09 am    Post subject: 11-04-07 'Dropout factories': Must ZIP code be destiny? Reply with quote

'Dropout factories': Must ZIP code be destiny?
Sunday, November 04, 2007
By Brian O'Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Dropout factories,'' said the Associated Press story, are those high schools where fewer than 60 percent of freshmen reached that school's senior year.

This calculated sound bite from a Washington group called the Alliance for Excellent Education was hard to resist, particularly when five of the city's 10 high schools -- Carrick, Langley, Oliver, Peabody and Westinghouse -- made the lamentable list.

A deeper look, though, showed an old story: Prosperous students stick around longer than poorer ones.

Though ZIP codes don't coincide perfectly with school districts, there is a stark difference between the income around dropout factories and those of schools holding tight to their students.

Four of the city's five "dropout'' schools have ZIP codes with an average household income between $24,178 and $28,517, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The fifth, Langley, reached $32,859.

None of the schools in Allegheny County where at least 95 percent of students reach the senior year had household incomes that low. Some were two or three times as prosperous. Pine-Richland, Hampton and Fox Chapel Area serve children whose ZIP codes have an average income above $60,000, and Upper St. Clair tops $85,000.

To which one must say, good for them. What good does that do Pittsburgh? Is such data of any use as the city restructures its schools?

"The income of the students' family is not destiny," says Bethany Little, vice president for policy for the Alliance for Excellent Education.

There are schools scattered throughout America in tough neighborhoods that have succeeded, she said. Her advocacy group wants the federal government to target high schools the way it has elementary schools. Some schools need more resources, but some just need to spend more wisely.

Students from homes without a "college culture'' need more counseling because the stakes are huge. Ms. Little rattled off stats: A high school dropout earns $1 million less over the course of a lifetime than a college grad and $260,000 less than a high school grad. The Pennsylvania economy stands to lose $9 billion in potential income annually if dropout rates don't ebb.

By coincidence, Mark Roosevelt, the city schools superintendent, announced a shake-up last week. Schenley High in Oakland, nobody's first choice to shut down, may have to close because the district can't afford the $64 million needed to renovate it.

But Mr. Roosevelt also seeks four new schools that would span grades six through 12: an International Baccalaureate school in at the Shadyside/East Liberty border, a university-affilliated school in the Hill District, a science and technology school in Oakland, and the movement of the creative and performing arts middle school to the same Downtown building that houses the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. (That high school had a "promoting power'' of almost 108 percent in 2006 because of students transferring in.)

As a parent with daughters in a city elementary school, I'm excited by new choices for my family. As a taxpayer, I wonder what can be done to improve the schools from which we'd steer clear.

"The basic reality is how they paint it,'' Mr. Roosevelt said of the damning report. City schools do well in the lower grades, but the high schools might meet the needs of only half the students.

"They haven't fundamentally changed since the 1940s,'' he said.

The city started the "Ninth Grade Nation'' orientation program last summer, to help students slide smoothly into freshman year, a time when newly secreting glands increase the drama exponentially.

"You get in Algebra One and have no idea how to deal with it. That's a hugely discouraging moment.''

Mr. Roosevelt would like school officials to meet with each child, and his or her parent or guardian, in the sixth grade to discuss choices and map a strategy for college or a technical school. "We want kids in the sixth grade focusing and dreaming about that.''

Mentoring programs need more coordination, too. He could use 1,000 Pittsburghers there, and he intends to pay more attention to guidance counseling.

"Many of our kids lack the necessary scaffolding in their own lives. We need to move from bemoaning that to doing something about it. There's so much to do it's unbelievable.''

Brian O'Neill can be reached at [email protected] or 412-263-1947.
First published on November 4, 2007 at 12:00 am
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