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City school board's refusal to hire math teachers is criticized

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Nearly a dozen residents complained last night to Pittsburgh school board members about the board's 5-4 vote last month against hiring 12 teachers to help high school freshmen who are struggling in math.

Among the speakers were district parents, community leaders and union officials. Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers Vice President Sherman Shrager said the additional teachers were "critical for the success of students in algebra" and in achieving state academic standards.

"This is not putting on a Band-Aid," Shrager said. "A significant number of students have problems with algebra."

Board President Jean Fink created an uproar at last month's board meeting when she joined her colleagues who usually form the five-member majority in rejecting a proposal to hire 12 math teachers.

Residents and board members who supported the resolution were outraged because Fink had joined school officials and community leaders in drafting the proposal.

Fink insisted at last month's meeting that she never promised that she would vote for the compromise proposal.

At issue was whether the math teachers would be used to help usher in a new high school math curriculum that the majority questioned.

The final proposal the board considered emphasized that the 12 teachers would provide additional lab classes for the current math curriculum, which introduces algebra in ninth grade.

The dispute over the math teachers also became another opportunity for residents critical of the majority to complain about it.

"You're more interested in preserving neighborhood schools than meeting the needs of students in the entire district," said Tim Stevens, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"The board needs to get over its obsession to get rid of this man," he added, pointing to Superintendent John Thompson. "We will not allow him to leave."

Adding a more moderate voice was Republican matriarch Elsie Hillman, who warned board members that their division was causing a growing lack of confidence in the direction of the district, especially among philanthropic and financial communities.

She urged board members and administrators to compromise on those issues that divide them and to seek to implement those academic programs that are recognized as best practices.

After the meeting, Hillman said she decided to attend the session and to speak more in generalities to help bring people together, not to create more tension.

But she said when she mentioned using programs known to be best practices, she was implying that the board should support the math program recommended by administrators.

Also last night, four North Side residents complained to the board about plans to conduct summer school at Oliver High School for the third consecutive year.

Residents said during previous years, students from other parts of the city smoked, loitered and urinated in their yards, verbally harassed residents, littered trash throughout the neighborhoods and conducted drug deals on the streets.

They urged the board to either have summer school at another location or to force school police and staff members to do a better job of monitoring student behavior.

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