WILKINSBURG — Parents of students who attend the Turner Elementary School in the Wilkinsburg (Allegheny County) School District, the first public school in the state to be placed in the hands of private management, say they have seen clear and definite progress over the course of the past year.
More than one year ago, the Wilkinsburg School Board handed over management of the troubled Turner Elementary School to Alternative Public Schools (APS), a private management company. The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research recently surveyed the parents of students in all three Wilkinsburg elementary schools — Johnson, Kelly, and Turner — and asked them to rate the performance of those schools. Turner Elementary ranked at or near the top of most categories.
“Results of this survey clearly show a turnaround at Turner Elementary School,” said Lowman S. Henry, Chairman of the Lincoln Institute. “This doesn’t mean that serious challenges still remain, because they do. But, there is no doubt a majority of the Turner parents responding to our survey have seen dramatic improvement in the quality of their children’s education during the past year.”
When asked if the quality of instruction had improved from previous years, 72% of Turner parents responded that it had, while only 24% of Johnson parents and 50% of Kelly parents reported improved instruction. In response to the question of whether their child’s general attitude had changed, 50% of Turner parents said that it was better than in previous years. Only 16% of Johnson parents and 42% of Kelly parents reported improved attitude.
In overall satisfaction, Kelly Elementary earned the highest score of 73%, while Turner enjoyed a satisfaction rate of 69%. Only 56% of Johnson parents said they were satisfied with the performance of their child’s school. But when parents were asked to give their child’s school a letter grade, 72% of Turner parents awarded a letter grade of A or B. Only 20% of Johnson parents and 59% of Kelly parents said that their school deserved an A or B.
What brought about the positive change at Turner Elementary? One parent attributed the change to “Turner’s changing hands of instruction over to [the new principal,] Dr. [Elaine] Mosely. More innovative ways of teaching, plus strong emphasis on basics.” Another parent commented that “[t]he children were taught to believe in themselves. Behavior on the whole improved, making the environment conducive to learning.” Yet another Turner parent described it this way: “The APS team took time to teach and enforce the thought in these children that they are someone, that it is okay to dream. A lot of these children don’t get that at home. APS tries to mold the whole child.”
Turner parents repeatedly praised several specific improvements. First, they believed that their child was the school’s primary concern. They felt that Turner’s teachers were concerned about the individual progress of their child, as shown through increased personal instruction. As a result, 88% of Turner parents said they were satisfied with the teaching staff at their child’s school, while 71% of Johnson parents and 78% of Kelly parents were satisfied with their teaching staffs.
The parents at Turner also applauded the high level of involvement and communication with the teaching staff. Parents reported that Turner teachers made periodic phone calls to update them on their child’s progress. In addition, parents reported that the teachers at Turner were more receptive to their views and suggestions than in the past.
A strong emphasis on teaching “the basics”, including self-control, was cited as another key to the improvements at Turner. Some parents described this effort to enforce basic standards of personal and academic performance as “teaching values”. Commenting on this practice, one parent praised the “discipline and tact used by staff to solve the problems the kids bring to school.”
The final element in the Turner turnaround was the use of creative teaching methods under the new management. According to the Turner parents, the introduction of computers and other technology was a positive step, as well as providing students with an opportunity to apply what they had learned in the classroom. “My child’s overall school year was great,” one parent wrote. “I can never say enough about Turner.”
Some of the changes at Turner received mixed reviews. The teaching of Black History was lauded by some parents as an important contribution to the improved attitude of the students, while other parents said that it was an unnecessary distraction from other classwork. Increased amounts of homework, a longer school year, and strict limits on student sugar intake were praised by some parents, but criticized by others.
The survey results also showed that Turner parents experienced some disappointment during their first year under new management. They were especially troubled by dissention in the Wilkinsburg community from the political battle over the private management contract. Turner parents remain concerned about student violence and the ability of the school to control classroom behavior. Among other things, they were critical of initial disorganization by APS, some unqualified teachers, and a lack of books, equipment, and computer time.
Kelly parents had mostly positive comments, with some underlying concerns. When asked if the quality of instruction had improved from previous years, 50% of Kelly parents said instruction had improved, while 32% said it was about the same. They commended caring teachers, a good principal, the computer lab, and foreign language classes. At the same time, they were displeased with student violence, classroom disruption, a lack of parental involvement, and constant staff turnover.
The responses from the Johnson parents about their children’s school were strongly negative, with the harshest criticism reserved for teachers. While some Johnson parents did applaud specific teachers, they were displeased with teaching staff turnover, unqualified teachers, and a lack of communication with parents about academic problems. One parent said “[s]ome of them just don’t care when the children act up; they don’t send them out of the room or home. They just don’t care about them. They are just pushing the kids through the system.” Another parent complained that “the teachers just seem like they were [there] just for the money, or it is my job [to teach]. They just did not care about the children.”
Johnson parents also expressed their fears about student violence and gangs. In fact, 80% of Johnson parents were dissatisfied with student behavior. “I can protect my son while he’s around me, but when he’s in school I don’t think I should have to worry about another first grader talking about gangs or portraying the role of a gang member,” one parent despaired.
“I feel that my child deserves the best education there is,” one parent wrote. “Unfortunately, I can’t afford to pay for her to go to one of [those] expensive schools. I’ve had her in other schools. Before moving to Wilkinsburg, my daughter attended city school. If I had a choice, she would be back in city school, because Wilkinsburg School District is the [worst] school district that my child has had to attend. If push comes to shove, I’ll just have to move so my daughter won’t have to attend a school that lacks in education.”
Considering the disturbing state of Johnson Elementary School, could the innovations at Turner serve as a model for change? Knowledge of the private management contract at Turner was almost universal among the Wilkinsburg parents that were surveyed. Although parents from Johnson and Kelly elementary schools opposed the Turner contract (43% and 61% against, respectively), 69% of Turner parents supported it. In fact, 52% of Turner parents said that, based on their child’s experience, they would recommend that the operation of other schools in the Wilkinsburg School District be turned over to a private management company.
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research mailed 1,164 surveys to the parents of Wilkinsburg elementary school students. Those parents completed 123 surveys, providing a response rate of 10.5%. All of the parents who responded said that they had personally visited their child’s school.
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. is a non-profit educational foundation dedicated to conducting timely public opinion research on key state and national issues. Based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Lincoln Institute neither endorses nor opposes candidates for public office or proposed legislation at any level.