Wilkinsburg High School rises four stories above Wallace Avenue like an aging brick and stone castle that was once impressive, but is now forgotten and forlorn.
Inside the 1910 building, walls are cracked, paint is peeling, hallways are dimly lit and students climb steep sets of stairs. At tonight’s graduation ceremony in the high school auditorium parents won’t be able to use the first seven rows of seats on one side because of a crumbling ceiling above.
The dismal appearance of the building reflects the achievements of the students who go there. Test scores are among the lowest in the state. The habitual truancy rate of 76.2 percent — those who have six or more unexcused absences — soars above the county and statewide averages of 8.18 percent and 7.52 percent, respectively.
On any given day, there are as many students out of class as are in class.
Those who show up frequently stroll in late or leave early, and while there, they often text and listen to music and videos on their cell phones.
But in the midst of dysfunction and disorder, success stories can be found.
One of them is Iesha Stover, 19, who will graduate tonight as salutatorian, with a near-perfect attendance record and grade point average. She’s headed to Penn State Altoona, with a partial academic scholarship and full dreams for her future. Another is James Herbert, who also will graduate tonight and who has his own set of dreams.
Iesha and James allowed the Post-Gazette to document part of their senior year to send out the message that there are students in Wilkinsburg who try to make positive things happen at their school despite the negative headlines the district and its high school have garnered.
Iesha has attended Wilkinsburg schools since kindergarten. She proudly wears her Tiger gear to school and paid hundreds of dollars for a Wilkinsburg letter jacket and class ring engraved with volleyball team, Key Club and National Honor Society insignias. It’s money she earned working 30 hours or more a week at a local restaurant.
Despite the low regard many of her classmates appear to hold for education, Iesha has never given up on her belief that education is the way to a better life.
“I just want to make sure I focus and have a future. I really care about my future,” Iesha said. She’s been encouraged by her mother, Tracey Alcantara, and stepfather, Lee Epps, who, Iesha said, helped her with homework when she was young and stressed the importance of education as a way to a successful future.
She hopes to become a psychologist so she can “work with people and help them through their tough times.”
Through her middle and high school years as she watched her class size dwindle from 88 students in seventh grade to the 32 who will graduate tonight, Iesha gravitated toward those who shared her values. One of them is James, who also is 19.
While Iesha is more reserved, James, is self-described as “Mr. School Spirit” and was a cheerleader, marching band member, president of student council and homecoming king. James quickly points out that he’s not the straight-A student that Iesha is — “You get all As. I get Bs, Cs, Ds and Es,” he joked.
Iesha was drawn to school for the academics and chance to better herself, James said he attended regularly because of the relationships he had with staff and friends. He named particular teachers, administrators and a secretary whom he visited with everyday.
“They would care if I didn’t show up,” James said. “I like people. I’m a people person.”
The negative headlines have come one after the other.
The district needed to take out a $3 million loan last year to make payroll.
In the state School Performance Profiles released last fall, the high school’s academic score of 36.3 of 107 was the lowest in Allegheny County. According to the profile, only 13 percent of the high school students scored proficient or advanced in algebra, 18 percent in literature and 3 percent in biology.
In December, it was revealed that an art teacher was teaching chemistry, and a health and physical education teacher was teaching French.
In February, headlines announced the high school’s habitual truancy rate had risen from 57.4 percent in 2011-12 to 76.2 percent in 2012-13 and that there had been no state-mandated attendance officer in place since October 2012. In March, Superintendent Lee McFerren was placed on administrative leave, pending his dismissal at the end of this month. Board President Ed Donovan did not cite specific reasons but said in a statement that the board’s decision resulted “from differences of opinion regarding the administration and operation of the school district.”
The board appointed Donna Micheaux to replace Mr. McFerren in March, but she decided last month to take a new job in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
To an outsider it may appear the district is a rudderless ship. But neither James or Iesha allowed the bureaucratic drama outside of the school or the teenage drama inside to prevent them from persevering. It is not unusual for James and Iesha to be in a class with just a handful of students. “Either they don’t show up or they come real late,” Iesha said.
They’re keenly aware of the shrinking size of their class and the faltering attendance of their peers.
“In seventh grade, we would walk the hallways, and you couldn’t get through. In eighth grade, it was still crowded. But it got really low in 10th grade,” James said.
According to the April enrollment numbers, that same trend is holding. There were 60 students in seventh grade, 59 in eighth, 48 in ninth, 38 in 10th and 33 in 11th grade.
James said he knows of a number of students who transferred to other schools or moved to new communities. Wilkinsburg has been particularly hard hit by an exodus of some 400 students to charter schools at a projected cost of $5.4 million of the district’s $28 million annual budget.
Cell phones and other disruptions
On a Friday in April, Iesha was one of four students in her child development class, but two arrived late, one nearly halfway through the class.
Health and consumer science teacher Christy Kotnik spent the class period writing vocabulary words related to childbirth on an overhead projector and asking the class for definitions. Iesha answered most the queries. Next, in English class, with teacher John Myers, eight students were present. Three boys sat in a row on the left side of the room with their backs to the wall. They spent the entire class on their phones texting and talking with each other and laughing.
Every student in the class had a cell phone out, some with earbuds, despite a sign in front of the class that said: No cell phones. No earbuds. No hoodies.
Students were supposed to be working on their senior projects, using laptops to research and create PowerPoint presentations. But most talked, did nothing or played with their phones. Iesha was the only one consistently working on her laptop. After a while, she moved around and appeared to be helping other students. Mr. Myers also helped students who expressed a need.
In the meantime, one student arrived late and three others left class early without comment. Another girl sang loudly to music she is listened to through her earbuds.
Iesha appeared unfazed by it all. But later she expressed disgust over the boys with their cell phones.
“I want to tell them, ‘Pay attention and stay off of your phones,’” Iesha said. “You come to school to learn. How do you expect to learn if you don’t pay attention?”
Later that day, James faced a similar scene in French class, where a group of boys talked loudly, rapped and repeated raunchy comedy routines.
Teacher Mariann Sullivan tried to talk with the boys about the work folders she had placed on their desks, but they didn’t stop laughing or talking during her attempts.
Of the two female students in the room, one was slumped in a corner with earbuds in her ears and eyes closed. Another ate Cheetos and drank a soft drink. A short time into class, she took her folder and left. James sat quietly in the back of the room doing his written work, with Mrs. Sullivan providing assistance when needed.
What keeps him focused on his work when everyone else around is goofing off?
“I want to graduate,” James said.
Cell phone use among students has gotten the attention of the school board. School director Tiffany Lumpkin proposed a policy that would require students to deposit their cell phones with administrators at the start of the school day and retrieve them when they leave.
The majority of the board appeared to support the proposal, but school director Richard Bradford predicted the board would face “serious backlash” from parents. He said he doubted it could be enforced. School director Karen Payne said the district tried to enforce a cell phone policy previously and parents complained.
Mr. Donovan, the board president, disagreed. “If the entire city of New York can keep cell phones out of the classrooms, we can find a way to do it, too.”
Mrs. Sullivan, a French and foreign cultures teacher for 29 years, said teachers’ hands were tied on the cell phone and other discipline issues several years ago when former Superintendent Archie Perrin directed teachers to stop sending students to the principal’s office for infractions and to handle discipline issues within the classroom.
“We were no longer allowed to write referrals or have them escorted out by security guards,” Mrs. Sullivan said.
Instead, teachers do the best they can, she said.
Mr. Perrin denied that he issued any directive that hampered teachers’ ability to discipline. He said the district’s discipline code clearly defines levels of offenses based on severity with the less severe problems to be handled in the classroom and more severe offenses handled by the administration. He said there have been two superintendents in place since he left a year ago and that is was unfair to blame him for current conditions.
“I am not the current superintendent. I am not the principal. I have nothing to do with the current conditions in that building,” Mr. Perrin said this week.
Principal Steve Puskar said he inherited a building where cell phone and other discipline policies were not followed or enforced. He said changing the culture has been difficult. He supports the board’s effort to ban cell phones, but hopes at some point the students will be able to use them for class work.
Often in class, students are handed worksheets or written material to work on. James and Iesha said the practice was developed by teachers who found it too difficult to address the class over the noise caused by disruptive students. Mrs. Sullivan confirmed that.
“I create the work that we are doing based on where I think they are in the lesson. They are not just worksheets. They are given material to work on and an explanation of how to use the language,” she said. In James’ class, she walked around the classroom giving individual instruction to students who wanted it and ignoring the disruptive students.
“I wish I could stand in front of the class and teach,” she said.
Iesha defended all of her teachers at Wilkinsburg High School. “I wasn’t close with all of my teachers, but I was cool with them. They were a big part of who I was during high school, and they were there for me one-on-one,” she said.
Mrs. Sullivan has taught both Iesha and James.
Of Iesha, Mrs. Sullivan said, “She gets things very quickly. She has smarts. She has not let that part of herself die in this atmosphere. She has kept the fire alive, and she keeps doing what she is supposed to be doing.” She said Iesha was among a group of honors students in seventh grade, but after that year the honors program was disbanded.
She described James as “very creative with everything and a great musician.”
But she was quick to point out they aren’t the only talented students at her school.
“Every year I teach, there are amazing students at Wilkinsburg High School,” she said.
Both Iesha and James are disheartened that low enrollment and poor attendance make it difficult to field sports teams and a marching band or to fill the rosters of clubs and activities. This spring, the district cancelled the baseball team for lack of interest and funds.
Iesha was on the volleyball team. “But we barely made a team. We had to get kids from the middle school to have a team,” she said.
With the marching band, James, a drummer, said each year would start with 30 members, enough to put together routines. “But then it would drop to 20 and then “so low it’s useless,” James said.
Through their travels to other schools in their extracurricular activities, James and Iesha have seen what Wilkinsburg is missing. They see other schools with swimming pools, tracks and large, well-lit gymnasiums and auditoriums along with state-of-the art technology.
“We went to a tournament in Deer Lakes. “Everybody was like ‘Look at the size of this gym. This gym is humongous,’” Iesha said.
During a visit to Upper St. Clair High School for a science program, Iesha said, “I thought it was a college. There is like a whole campus, and the classrooms are really nice and they were all high tech.”
Too few courses
Physical amenities aren’t the only thing missing at Wilkinsburg High School.
For Iesha, the lack of upper level courses in every subject meant that by senior year, she was left with English 12, physical education, French II and two electives: music appreciation in the fall and child development in the spring.
At the end of junior year, she had completed the highest level of math — pre-calculus — and all of the sciences — biology, chemistry and physics — and she had exhausted most of the limited electives.
By spring semester, most days she was in school for just the first two periods for child development and English classes. Because her French II, class was offered only seventh period, she was permitted to leave school for work after second period most days and do her French work outside of class.
In recent weeks, Iesha commented that her senior year was somewhat of a waste.
“I like school and I like learning stuff and there wasn’t much here for me. I wish there was more stuff for me to learn for college. I’m sorry but I don’t feel like I learned anything this year. I like to be challenged, but this year I didn’t feel challenged.”
The school board recently announced an aggressive plan to add courses to the middle and high school such as honors math, science and English — maybe Advanced Placement later — and computer classes next year.
Mr. Donovan said shortly after taking office in December he met James and some of his friends at a band concert. In conversation, he discovered the dearth of elective courses at the high school.
“The progress we will make for the fall of ‘14 will be great, but it comes too late for James and Iesha,” he said. “Both of these young people would have benefited from a richer curriculum, a broader menu of courses, the kind of program we hope to implement in the fall.
“But thanks to their honesty in speaking up about what has been missing, and what needs to happen, changes will be made.”
The apathy that permeates the high school during most school days dissolved for the annual prom lineup — a pre-prom parade of students and their dates. It takes place on a temporary stage in front of school, where crowds of students’ relatives and friends gather to cheer and take photos.
Iesha was reserved and elegant as she and her date walked the stage, where she thanked her family, who carried her gown as she made her way to school.
But James was a crowd-pleaser as he strutted, smiled and pointed to the crowd in his white tux and black vest with hand-sewn animal print patches. At home, his mother, June Howard, and sisters, Lakia Herbert, Zarria Howard and Jess Anderson, gathered with his aunt, Cynthia Taylor, and cousins to cheer him on. Some of the group followed him to the line-up. “I’m proud of him,” Ms. Howard said.
Senior project, graduation
For James and Iesha and the other seniors, tonight’s graduation couldn’t come without the completion of a senior project.
Iesha’s project was on depression — a topic suited to her planned profession. While Iesha’s presentation consisted mostly of a PowerPoint presentation on the symptoms of depression, James’ presentation on fashion included a model who changed into outfits from various eras. He wore a bow tie that he created himself from a regular men’s tie.
James said during his presentation that he planned to attend Community College of Allegheny County and then transfer to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to study fashion.
Mr. Myers, the English teacher, urged him to apply immediately to CCAC. James said he would, but didn’t carry through with that promise. He has decided to find a full-time job and make enough money to move into an apartment of his own.
He doesn’t feel pressure to be enrolled in college right away and figures he can always go back to school.
“I think, ‘There’s always next year.’ But then next year, I might think the same thing,” he said, acknowledging the risk of putting off college.
Iesha, on the other hand, has carved her path to the future with as much certainty as she can muster.
“I am going to school to make myself better,” Iesha said. “I want to get out of Wilkinsburg. Then I want to come back and rub my success in their face.”