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Wilkinsburg-Westinghouse merger started with frenetic pace, but has come together with time

It’s about halfway through the second semester and already plans are underway to welcome the next class of Wilkinsburg students set to attend Pittsburgh Public Schools in the fall.

About 220 Wilkinsburg middle- and high-school students started at Westinghouse 6-12 in August in the first of a six-year agreement being closely watched by local and state officials. Students generally agree that what they describe as a frenetic start to the school year has calmed over time. Observers have praised parts of the transition while fretting over the school’s stability as it welcomed its third principal this year.

“It would be lying to say everything went hunky dory,” said Sylvia Wilson, first vice-president of the city school board representing Homewood, Larimer and other East End neighborhoods. “This has been a transition year. Nobody should expect perfection in the first year of a partnership like this.”

An early critique was that such an arrangement would shift students from one low-achieving school to another and provide access to offerings like magnet schools only after the first year. But Jon Bindley, who taught after-school programs and an in-school civics program at Wilkinsburg High School, said he’s seen firsthand how the transition has benefited one former student.

He recalled how Jesus Pierce, 17, sat frustrated in the Wilkinsburg band room “where nothing was going on.” The two share a love of music, and now they jam on guitar together at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA.

“Here’s a Wilkinsburg kid that I saw that didn’t have access to all the great stuff we have here,” Mr. Bindley told a small group of Westinghouse students at the YMCA Lighthouse Project, an after-school program that helps students learn about media arts, including music production. “It makes me so happy to see that he’s here and you guys have accepted him.”

Jesus, 17, who plays trumpet in the band, said he likes Westinghouse, where he said he has more opportunities and a permanent roster of teachers. He was skeptical at first. But “It’s been fine for me,” he said. “I feel good about it.”

“Everything at Westinghouse is going OK,” Kenyale Cottingham, a 16-year-old junior in the emergency response technology CTE program, wrote in an email. She said any fights generally haven’t been Wilkinsburg “verses” Westinghouse but between students themselves from those places. She’s getting good grades, she said, and when she felt behind in English, her teacher “broke it down [for] me and it got easier since then.”

“There is nothing I would change about that school. I don't love everything about it but it's a good school.”