Woodland Hills School District is considering major changes over the next two school years to save money, woo students back to the public schools and potentially save itself from financial ruin.
At a special community meeting Tuesday night at the high school, Substitute Superintendent Alan Johnson shared those plans with about 40 elected and appointed officials who came from the 12 municipalities that make up the district.
The district projects that it could save $2-3 million a year by closing three elementary schools, moving seventh-graders to a separate building close to the high school and bringing eighth-graders into the high school building. (See a four-part Patch series beginning today that discusses these plans in depth.)
The district proposes closing Fairless Elementary next school year and then turning it into a "Family Service Centre" to provide a one-stop shop for social services for families of infants, todders and preschoolers. A public hearing to discuss the repurposing or closing is scheduled for 7 p.m Tuesday, March 5, at the school, 531 Jones Ave., North Braddock.
The long-range plan also would close Shaffer Elementary in Churchill and Dickson Elementary in Swissvale at the end of the 2013-14 school year. Students would be redistributed to Wilkins and Edgewood elementary schools, Woodland Hills Junior High in Swissvale and Woodland Hills Academy in Turtle Creek.
Johnson said the district would work with the boroughs to make sure the schools continue to serve the community and not end up padlocked and boarded up.
In an effort to replicate the success seen by Woodland Hills Academy, Johnson said each of the four elementary schools would become a themed academy to attract students with particular talents or interests in world studies, creative arts, traditional or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Seventh grade would remain at the junior high in 2013-14, but eighth grade would move to its own area within the high school. For the 2014-15, the plan calls for seventh grade to be relocated to a separate building close to the high school.
Under the proposal, Woodland Hills High School would become a career pathway high school for grades 8-12. Within the high school, four academies would be established: STEM, industrial technology, human services, and art and communications.
In coming up with the plans, Johnson said the administration took into account the suggestions of an ad hoc planning committee and the state Department of Education. The proposals take into account the present and projected budget constraints facing the district.
"We have to compete with Propel," Johnson told the officials gathered. "We have to compete with the cyber charters. We have to compete with the parochials."
Over a two-year period, the district has lost $9 million in funding due to state budget cuts and loses about $12 million a year in payments to charter and cyber charter schools. Johnson said that situation will be worse in 2015 when scholarships to non-public schools that are currently funded with the Education Improvement Tax Credit Program shift to become the responsibility of the state's school districts. That would have a tremendous impact on the district.
"We will have difficulty continuing to operate," Johnson said.
The key to the district's survival, he said, hinges on creating some new and different options that can help attract new students or bring students who have left back to the public schools, such as:
- Expanding the Wolverine Promise Program at Rankin School from a grade 3-12 program for students with disruptive behaviors to a K-12 alternative center.
- Starting a district K-12 cyber charter school in August 2013.
- Offering a hybrid learning center option that allows students to take some of their classes at home and others at school.
- Instituting credit recovery and dropout recovery classes to grant diplomas rather than GEDs to students who have left school.
- Providing a "Family Services Centre" to connect parents of infants, toddlers and preschoolers with community social services.
"I believe students will start coming back to us if we do this," Johnson said.
Johnson noted that the Woodland Hills municipalities all have community days over the summer. The district plans to make an appearance at those events in an effort to connect with families and market the district's plans.
In an interview with Patch on Monday, Johnson said that the school board might take some steps proposed but not necessarily approve everything included in the plan. Any changes would require a vote of the board.
What is proposed is really just an outline of what is possible, Johnson said. He said there is a lot of internal talent and expertise in the district's staff that would be utilized on planning teams that would focus on one aspect of the long-range plan.
"This should not be a top-down thing," Johnson said. "It needs to be, 'Here's the big picture with lots and lots of blanks to fill in.'"
He admits that selling the district is an uphill battle—that the district's "been through a lot."
"We recognize that education is now a competitive market," he said. "Parents have lots of choices—parochial, non-public, cyber and charter. We have to become an option parents want to exercise."
Check back with Patch for more information about the long-range plan.
Woodland Hills Long Range Plan: The Seven Tiers