July 24, 2008

Woodland Hills District State Test Scores Plummet Again

By Karen Roebuck, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 24--Woodland Hills School District's most recent state test scores plummeted again, the new superintendent said this week, pushing the district a step closer to a possible state takeover.

Only one district school, Edgewood Primary, met Adequate Yearly Progress standards mandated under No Child Left Behind during the past school year -- down from three schools a year ago, according to Superintendent Walter Calinger, who took over the helm July 1.

That moves the district into Corrective Action II status, the bottom of the federal No Child Left Behind mandate's five rungs of academic performance.

"I'm not happy about it. I want us to do better," said school board President Marilyn Messina, who teaches fifth grade in the Penn Hills School District. "I do believe everybody is trying to do the best job they can do, and we're going to keep working."

"I look at all this as changeable, and the reason I came in is to change them," Calinger said.

While Calinger still is learning the extent of the school district's poor academic performance and other problems -- such as a rash of student fights -- he promises to turn it into Allegheny County's top-rated district within three years.

"Woodland Hills has the opportunity to have world-class schools. I believe that," he said. "We will, within three years, be the best in the county. And, yes, I do know the other districts in the county."

The 4,800-student district responsible for educating children from 11 eastern communities soon will surpass the highly rated Fox Chapel, Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair districts in academic performance, Calinger promised.

"Our goal is every school in the district will meet AYP next year. No, we will exceed it," Calinger said. With the proper teaching and leadership, students can learn, regardless of socioeconomics or race, he said.

The state Department of Education plans to publicly detail the most recent Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test scores next month for all 501 districts, which now are reviewing those results.

For Woodland Hills, a state takeover is not automatic, but could come as early as the second year at Corrective Action II status. For now, it means the state Department of Education can order changes in leadership, curriculum and staff training, and the district must develop a restructuring plan. For the past two years, a team of state employees, known as "distinguished educators," have been working with Woodland Hills faculty and administrators.

"We certainly have a lot of (student) successes and scholarships and honors. We must be doing something right," Messina said. "It's a shame we have one test to judge everything."

Test scores are not Calinger's only challenge.

Last fall, then-Swissvale police Chief James Ohrman complained that district officials repeatedly failed to notify police about serious crimes committed in schools. After student fights increased in the spring -- and teachers were injured trying to break them up -- District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. assigned a task force and detectives from his office to periodically check vehicles and students at the high school.

"Number one, schools are going to be safe. Non-negotiable," Calinger said.

The school board last week agreed to spend $338,000 to replace the video security systems at the junior and senior high schools. About 80 high-resolution, color cameras will be installed before the Aug. 26 start of school inside and outside the high school. About 50 will be installed at the junior high.

Giving students better-quality instruction and consistent discipline while resolving attendance problems will help reduce school violence, Calinger said. Teachers and staff need more professional development, he said.

"This isn't rocket science. If a 10th-grade student has discipline problems and we teach him to read and the discipline problem goes away," Calinger said, then the problem was with the quality of his education.

"It's going to take the cooperation of the board, it's going to take the cooperation of the teachers and it's going to take the cooperation of the parents. We have to work together as a team to change this, and when we're successful -- as we will be -- everybody can take credit," Calinger said.


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