After years in which reforms were concentrated on its elementary and middle schools, the district now is focused on its high schools, the largest, most-expensive buildings to operate and the places where failure too often has been an option.
With significant community input, the district has put together a promising plan for the Peabody high school building in East Liberty, which is underutilized but big enough to accommodate the popular and successful International Baccalaureate program, now operating temporarily in the former Reizenstein middle school building.
In deciding what to do about those neighborhoods that currently send students to Peabody, the administration has raised an interesting idea-- single-gender programming in the Westinghouse high building -- but one that could be problematic.
It is important to take advantage of the Westinghouse building in Homewood because it recently underwent a $25 million renovation, but unknown is how receptive East End families will be to the idea of separate programs for girls and boys. The students assigned to the programs would be those in the current Peabody district who live east of Negley Avenue and those in neighborhoods that already send children to Westinghouse. However, because federal law prohibits schools from making it mandatory for youngsters to attend all-girl or all-boy school programs, families that don't want them will be able to request assignment instead to the University Preparatory school in Milliones in the Hill District. That's also where students who live west of Negley who would have attended Peabody would be assigned.
Although the district believes there is sufficient interest in the same-gender programs, the decision to offer them is bound to trigger legal challenges under state and federal law.
The U.S. Education Department in 2006 changed regulations and expanded options for single-sex public schooling under Title IX, the law that assures equality in educational programming and that is best known for its impact on interscholastic sports for girls. Since 2002, the number of public single-gender schools has mushroomed from 11 to more than 500, according to the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education.
Much of the argument in favor of the schools is based on research that suggests -- not without rebuttal -- that different approaches are necessary because of the differences in the ways boys and girls learn. Recent attempts to expand such options in Louisiana, Alabama and Kentucky, though, have been abandoned or altered after challenges by the American Civil Liberties Union, which asserts that the schools perpetuate gender stereotypes and deprive boys and girls of the benefits of co-education.
There are many other components to the plan -- an expansion of schools that contain grades six through 12, new programs at Oliver high, efforts to make sure more students graduate ready to start college and thus able to take advantage of Pittsburgh Promise scholarships, as well as changes for two Homewood elementary schools.
The biggest unknown is the cost of the proposed changes, something that school board members have asked administrators to put together. That's vital because the necessity of developing plans the district can afford cannot be overstated in a city where raising property taxes would be disastrous.
Everyone in the city who is interested in developing the best options for Pittsburgh's students at prices taxpayers can afford should make their views known at public hearings the board will conduct next month or online at www.pps.k12.pa.us (use the link to "School Reconfiguration Plan" on the right side).
Once the public has spoken, the school board should carefully consider the range of options before making the call on each of the features in this far-reaching plan.