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