THE KIDS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WELL

Career Educator Discusses Crisis in Mon Valley District

by Richard Finch

Dr. Stanley Denton got involved in trying to resuscitate the troubled Duquesne City School District because since his days as a graduate student he believed education is a human rights issue and this Mon Valley district failed to serve the best interests of the children in the district he hoped to make the “Jewel of the Valley.”

During five years of efforts the board of control hammered out a new contract with teachers, added tutoring services, extended the school day and closed the high school, as well as hiring a new budget manager to improve fiscal solvency. Despite these efforts, the district did not meet AYP (yearly adequate progress) at any grade level, referring to targets set by Pennsylvania Department of Education standards for the 2010-11 school years.

Denton, an associate professor of education at Point Park University, resigned his position on the three member board in late October.

“In some cases failure is not an accident and kids in the Mon Valley, black or white, are kind of forgotten about in Allegheny County,” Denton said.

The board of control was created in 2000 to oversee the distressed school district as a result of a declining tax base and dwindling enrollment. Denton, who joined the board in 2006, is not pointing fingers but said no entity, whether it be the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), board of control or teachers union, can be exempt; all must accept responsibility for any failures.

Denton said his intent has always been to work with public education and improve the outcome for all students in an effort to achieve equivalency, adding “This is what I do.

With property taxes split between the city and school district, financial problems are directly related to the declining population in the Mon Valley. Recent census figures indicate Duquesne lost nearly half of the 11,410 residents it had in the 1970s. To make payroll the state bailed out the district. The city of Duquesne is exceptionally hard pressed economically in a state with many struggling school districts he said racism plays a role in the problems because Duquesne is predominately low-income and black, compared to neighboring municipalities such as West Mifflin, which is closer to middle class. “Duquesne and West Mifflin are essentially one community with two socio-economic levels; Duquesne will come to an agreement with neighboring districts or the state will impose its will.”

Duquesne is the only school district in Pennsylvania not governed by an elected school board, although the Philadelphia school district is governed by the school reform commission. Denton says the problems facing the district are more the result of structural inequity “These students are often looked down on by their peers in neighboring municipalities. This tendency to look down on kids from Duquesne occurs regardless of whether they are black or white.” Denton said there is a good relationship between the board of control and the nine member elected board, adding that the board of control does not try to operate as overseers and a long standing mutual respect prevails.

Reached by telephone Dr. Paul Rach superintendent of the city of Duquesne school district since September 2010, declined to speculate on the future of the school district but said “Dr. Denton had the students at heart; the students were at the forefront of his decision making.”

Adding to the problems nineteen teachers were let go in June, class sizes were increased but sports team activities were restored in the most recent budget. Gov. Tom Corbett introduced a budget plan in March 2011 to cut $4 million in Duquesne; however the Senate Appropriations Committee restored between $2.75 and 2.8 million, Denton said former Gov. Ed Rendell always found money to keep the district afloat and that he has no reason to doubt Gov. Corbett will support Duquesne City School District through the 2011-2012 school year.

“There is a battle between the Democrats and Republicans with the state budget. It is a political issue. They have to decide whether to save or spend, still, teaching positions could have been saved.”

Denton would like to see residents of Duquesne come together and decide what they want to do; saying decisions should be made by citizens of the district and not by people like him who don’t live there. Reached by telephone at his office in Harrisburg, Department of Education spokesman Timothy Eller responded, “There are many schools of thought on this, some of which include people who feel that schools should be “local.” Eller stressed that state law requires two board of control members to be residents of Allegheny County, appointed by the courts and a third member appointed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Denton knew things weren’t good when he saw results of the spring 2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test in math, reading, science and writing. None of the academic targets established by the state were met by Duquesne students in grades three through eight. High school students from Duquesne hit one target in math and missed all the reading targets. Duquesne high school students have been attending either East Allegheny or West Mifflin Area high schools since 2007.

Denton, who holds a Ph.D. in social psychology, emphasized test scores not only never came close to established goals despite rigorous teacher evaluations and other measures, they were actually worse in June 2011 compared to June 2010. “We wanted the kids to do better and it’s no one’s fault, the things we did, did not achieve the intended benefit.”

According to Eller, officials from the education department, the school district and members of the community are talking frequently to determine the best course for the school to receive adequate education for each student at this time. Denton is hopeful that the decision on the school districts future will be made at the local level with the support of the PDE rather than being initiated by the state or some other entity outside of Duquesne.

District spokesperson Sarah McCluan, reached by telephone said Denton had a good connection with the community; he seemed to understand their concerns. “We will be sorry to see him leave, he was always a strong advocate of the elected board, he always had questions and they were good questions.”

As the future of the school district hangs in the balance, politicians and educators across the state have a keen interest in the outcome because of implications for other financially distressed areas. It was always an uphill battle as the district represents the part of the Valley hardest hit by the decline of heavy industry in the 1980s. After his work there, Denton refers to the children caught up in a failing system as “the faces at the bottom of the well.”

Published December 8, 2011 To the Point online edition Point Park University

FUNDRAISING EVENT A GOOD FIT FOR PARTICIPANTS AND FOOD BANK

By Richard Finch

Megan Wagner and Erin Long normally shun sterile department stores for the excitement of shopping at funky boutiques and thrift stores.

Erin Long and Megan Wagner take a break from shopping on Sunday Nov.13 during the Fall Harvest Redd Up Thread Up event. Photo by Richard Finch
So when these friends learned they could join an eclectic array of fashion conscious hipsters, artists and students shopping for bargains while helping to fight hunger in southwestern Pennsylvania, they joined in.

Redd Up Thread Up, a community clothing swap, partnered with Assemble, was held the weekend of Nov. 12-13 and raised $568 for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food bank. Participants donated clothing in reusable tote bags and also donated canned goods. The event was held on Nov.12-13 at Assemble, an arts and technology space in the heart of the Penn avenue arts district. Participants purchased an event tote bag at the door to fill with merchandise. Clothing donors received a discounted tote bag to “shop” at the event.

The event was organized by Jennie Roth, the marketing and communications professional came up with the idea two years ago after learning of a similar event in Toronto.

“I started to brainstorm how to pull this together myself, there are so many people in the Pittsburgh area in need and I want to help,” she said.

Roth has experience in the non-profit community through her work with New Sun Rising, an organization that supports creative grass roots projects via fiscal sponsership Roth credits the use of social media networking  to get the word out and bring people in. “We posted event information on Facebook,” she said. “People saw it and showed up to support us.”

Clothing donors were asked to donate items in reusable tote bags so they can be donated to the Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project, an organization that provides tote bags to regional food banks. Shoes, purses, apparel and accessories were available but clothing was the primary focus of the sale.

Wagner, a seamstress and a manager at the Cotton Factory in Garfield said she occasionally finds one-of-a-kind items for herself and can make adjustments and embellish items to fit her size and style preference.

“I was pleasantly surprised I could still find good stuff on Sunday,” she said while filling her tote bag with shoes, clothes and tee-shirts.

Wagner prefers not to shop at department stores because she does not like the sterile environment and doesn’t follow style trends. She said much of the new clothing she finds doesn’t withstand her wear and that almost all options for clothing in malls is limited to current fashion trends. I don’t follow trends and have a really hard time finding things I like and finding quality items at clothing swaps or thrift stores is something I enjoy,” she said.

“I am very pleased that I found some unique items that I can work with and I’m happy to support the food bank,” Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank spokesperson, Iris Valenti, said the Redd Up Thread Up event is a great example of a community interacting for a good cause.

“There seems to be no end in sight to the economic downturn, we are grateful to anyone who takes a stand against hunger,” Valenti said.

Long, a hotel industry employee and freelance graphic artist was pleased to show off a Gucci bag, along with work clothes, boots and what she calls “fun clothes.” Long admits that although department stores allow customers to save time and find specific items quickly, she does not like the high prices and lack of self-expression. “Bargain hunting is part of the rush with shopping at thrift stores and boutiques,” she said.

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank helps 120,000 people each year with supplemental groceries, according to spokesperson Valenti and another 3,500 new households each month require assistance. During the last three months of the year, approximately 150 fund raising events held.

Roth said many participants gave extra cash because they felt they got more at the event than they paid for. Wagner said she and Long were among those who gave extra money because they were pleased with the items they purchased and they enjoyed interacting with the community to help raise money for the food bank. Roth is in the process of planning a similar event in the area next spring.

“Pittsburgh is a great place to hold these events,” Roth said. “We have a very strong community spirit.”

The Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank can be reached at 412-460-3663. Their website is http://www.pittsburghfoodbank.org

Published November 22, 2011 To the Point, Point Park University

BLUE SEAS OWNERS NAVIGATE RISKS, REWARDS OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP – Features – The Globe – Point Park University

Blue Seas owners navigate risks, rewards of entrepreneurship – Features – The Globe – Point Park University.

A youthful fascination with chemistry, along with tough times at home, led to a lifelong love of cooking for Alphonso Muhammad.

“As a kid I loved chemistry and science, so experimenting with recipes came naturally to me; however, my home life was difficult. My mother worked long hours, so I became responsible to cook for six younger siblings.”

Muhammad, along with co-owner Troy Johnson, opened the Blue Seas Fish & Take at the former site of Mocha Marianne’s at 411 Wood Street on Aug. 10. After the stress of navigating the lease process, Muhammad, originally from Washington, D.C., and Johnson, of western Pennsylvania, said the most difficult part in the process was purchasing equipment costing over $15,000.

Plans are in the works for a location in Monroeville Mall by the end of 2011, with a long term goal of expanding into franchise operations. Located across the street from Point Park University Center, Blue Seas is cozy with ample lighting, wood floors, window seating, flat-screen television and seating for 20 people.

The main fish staples are tilapia and whiting; chicken options include breasts, wings, thighs, legs and nuggets. Guests can order their food baked or fried. Muhammad said his mambo sauce wings are a favorite in his hometown of Washington, D.C. and unique to the Pittsburgh market. Mambo sauce is prepared with tomato base, corn syrup, sugar and seasoning. Entree prices range from $7.99 for fish or chicken including a choice of two side orders. The side orders are $2.99 and include candy carrots, onion rings and side salad. Weekday hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays.

They are hoping to attract the football crowd by offering a four-hour all-you-can-eat buffet on Sundays; a party of 20 can enjoy the buffet for $300. The facilities can be rented for special occasions and catering services are available.

Latonia Butler, who works Downtown, said she visits a few times each week.

“I enjoy the sweet, spicy mambo chicken wings and the macaroni and cheese,” Butler said. “I don’t care for some of the restaurants in this part of Downtown, but Blue Seas is clean. Also, I like a place with an open kitchen. The food and service is good.”

Johnson’s path to Blue Seas began after he walked away from his job as a senior financial sales consultant with a local bank, a position he had for 13 years.

“I really did not like that job. As one of the top salespeople I made them a lot of money, but it was just a job or what I like to call ‘just over broke’ because after I paid my bills there was no money left,” Johnson said. “Finally, after one exceptionally bad day, I’d had enough. I just left and never looked back.”

In spite of the bleak economy, they are not only hopeful but “prayerful” their business will be a welcomed addition to the Downtown market. Muhammad, who has owned restaurants in Washington, D.C. and North Carolina, started working at age 11 for an entrepreneur in D.C. who became one of his mentors. Soon he was out on his own operating a fruit and beverage cart and got a taste for earning money.

“My mentor taught me that you never want to work for someone else; if you work to be established you can earn money. The key is to duplicate yourself and put other people to work and then you never get stagnant. I, myself, have mentored hundreds of people over the years.”

“I was yearning for a mentor – my mother was working long hours and my father had a problem with heroin and was in and out of methadone clinics. He was absent from my life, so I found positive role models to help me,” Muhammad said. “My mom would call me from work to give me step by step instructions for making pancakes from scratch. I enjoyed the challenge and the praise I received after serving my entire family a special meal.”

Johnson said jokingly that he is the brawn doing the physical work and Muhammad is the brains. On a serious note he said, “I’ve known him since I was 19. I met him on a security site that he contracted. He has been a mentor to me as well as others. I have a lot of respect for the man.”

The pair is excited with the opportunity to offer what Johnson calls, “A focus on fish and food good for the soul.”

OCCUPY PITTSBURGH PROTESTERS HOLDING GROUND AT MELLON GREEN

Occupy Pittsburgh protesters holding ground at Mellon Green
Posted on October 26, 2011 by owner | No Responses
By Richard Finch

Jonathan Gray was passing through Boise, Idaho on a yearlong hitchhiking journey when he heard about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Eager to get involved, the 23 year old activist left for New York, his plans a

abruptly changed while passing through Pittsburgh on Oct. 3rd  when he made connections with other activists of the offshoot Occupy Pittsburgh movement  and decided to stay.

Two weeks later, he remains here among a diverse group of people from college students, veteran activists, the unemployed, anarchists, socialists and union leaders who have visited or camped out on Mellon Green and insists he’ll stay, even if confronted by police.

“I will not go willingly. I am prepared to be arrested if it comes to that,” he said.

Members of the camp say they have received food, coffee, sleeping bags and other items from nearby restaurants and passersby.

Gray said he is in it for the long haul, if Mellon Green is shut down he will move on to the nearest Occupy location and continue with the cause. An advocate for the homeless and involved in various social justice causes since middle school, Gray is passionate about the movement and expects it will be successful in the long run, conceding  that change won’t come easy.

“I’ve talked to folks from different socio-economic and political backgrounds, even tea party members and the bottom line is the same,” Gray said. “The current system needs to change.”

Mellon Green has been occupied since the rally on Oct. 15, with the permission (for the time being) of  park owner BNY Mellon. The Pittsburgh rally coincided with a global protest event as “Occupy” groups fanned out across the nation and parts of Europe. The leaderless movement is gaining international momentum with its message of “We are the 99%.”

Arrests and incidents involving police have occurred at Occupy events in New York and Chicago, however the Mellon Green camp has been peaceful. Occupiers had only positive comments about the police. On monday evening, Oct. 24, as protesters and curious onlookers gathered, a young unemployed musician who calls himself “Nice Nate,” declined to give his last name but had a lot to say about the events unfolding around him.

“You and I, as people are headed for a revolution, the entire world is, whether or not these tents in Pittsburgh or other places stay or are torn down, the revolution is inevitable,” he said.

Nate said all people really need is food, water, family and sustainable energy and he would like to see people live with resources, not wealth, since he considers money evil. Yet he conceded to the need to earn some cash from time to time.

“I understand, I myself have to hustle to make money, I feel bad that I have to be paid to provide music,” Nate said. “I feel dishonest selling my music.”

18-year-old Samantha Turner said she never thought she would bother to protest anything. The college student from Ambridge, Pa. said she is concerned about the rising cost of education, she is planning to work as a counselor in the drug and alcohol field.

“There are so many problems in society today, Occupy Pittsburgh is a movement that I believe in,” Turner said.

Carolyn Kemp sat at a small table with literature from the Workers International League, an organization formed in 2001 that promotes a revolutionary Marxist alternative to capitalism. The 26-year-old activist said our mainstream political parties are beholden to corporate money. She would like to see a consciousness rising with new ideas because people want to know and learn more about our system of economics.

Kemp said the movement is growing stronger every day and expects they will be there until late November, depending on the police and other forces. Kemp said it is partially true that this movement is leaderless, “however the main unifying theme is that something is very wrong with the system.”

Kemp added that criticism of the movement as “leaderless” is hilarious, saying their message is out there, only no one wants to see it. Kemp personally feels if the movement is too general and all inclusive it will not be useful, she would like to see strong leadership that can guide the movement in a democratic way.

Quoting Marxist doctrine Kemp said that capitalism is the problem, technology has increased beyond its productive phase so eventually it needs  replaced by something different, the capitalist system exists to exploit workers to obtain wealth.

“Whether everyone in this movement realizes this or not, that is what it is,” she said.

Mike Daniel has a different take on the Occupy movement, the economics student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania stopped by Mellon Green while passing thru Pittsburgh on Oct. 24th, as a student of economics he is fascinated with the movement and finds it interesting to discuss economic issues with protesters.

“I am a capitalist. I graduate next year and I would definitely take a job with a major corporation,” he said, adding that he didn’t come here to argue with anyone but doesn’t understand people who claim to be anti-money. “What do they do if they want a cheeseburger?” Daniel said.

As far as corporate leaders earning huge incomes, Daniels said apparently their board of directors felt they contributed to the corporation at a certain level, that not everyone can be a CEO, and the iron law of oligarchy is that wages fall towards the sustenance level, so the CEO makes millions and the unskilled workers make minimum wage.He said, “that’s the way it’s always been and I don’t see it changing.”

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