The Wilkinsburg School District has seen a high turnover in leadership in the last several years. It’s on the state’s watch list for low academic performance which, combined with declining enrollment, led to the closure of its middle and high school in May.
Those students now attend Westinghouse Academy in Homewood, part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools District. Wilkinsburg is now a district of two elementary schools and 500 students. Monday is the first day of school in both districts.
Linda Iverson, a former Baltimore school administrator, began as Wilkinsburg’s superintendent last week with an annual salary of $120,000. She sat down recently with 90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider after addressing teachers and staff for the first time at Kelly Elementary School.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
SCHNEIDER: What drew you to the Wilkinsburg School District and to this position?
IVERSON: I was at a point in my career where I had been in all of the positions I felt were pre-requisites to the superintendency. I can't say that I thought about being a superintendent all along. I just knew I had the passion for this work and I entered as a teacher. And thank goodness someone saw skill in me and principals would promote me and I became an administrator.
SCHNEIDER: What did you know about Wilkinsburg when applying for the position?
IVERSON: They were under state watch. I knew that they were not progressing student achievement. I knew about the change in leadership. I read every article. I knew all of that. But it just did not deter me. Those are some of the variables that happen in urban education. And it doesn't mean the students do not deserve still the very best opportunity to do the best that they can do. I don't tend to let those things deter me. I saw those things as an opportunity because I thought, "It can't get any worse." So it's probably now at a good place to turn the page.
SCHNEIDER: When talking with teachers, you said, "I am Wilkinsburg." What did you mean by that?
IVERSON: I am the kid who attended. I look like the kid who's in their classes. Years ago, I brought some of the variables, some of the barriers that our kids bring to the classroom, bring to our schools. I was one of those kids. And if it wasn't for the people in the building, I mean I had a caring mother, but she was a single mom and she had five of us and she had to go to work and she did what she could. She was in my school a lot. But, the school was what really hooked me and saved me. Because that's where we spend a lot of our time and they were the ones who helped flip the script for me and helped me to start believing more in myself to kind of develop my self-esteem because of that care they gave me, because of that extra beyond just teaching me. It was just a feeling that I was so motivated and subsequently I wanted to be like them and became a teacher.
SCHNEIDER: Right now, what are the biggest challenges facing the district?
IVERSON: I think what we are facing nationally. Drops in enrollment which, subsequently causes drops in funding. The competition we have with the charter schools, nationally. I mean, attracting our families away from public schools. I think that's just something I have in the back of my mind, "How can we make our schools more attractive?" That's what we need to do so that our kids don't leave. Certainly with the high stakes tests and with all the legislation around kids being prepared for the 21st Century, that's huge. We just haven't gotten that right yet. I think when national standards came out, and Pennsylvania is one of the states that adopted them, it said this is what kids need to do. But I don't think we've done a great job in training our teachers to teach to the standards. I mean we just gave it to them and said, 'do it,' and gave a little bit of support to teachers but we haven't done a great job in preparing teachers to teach critical thinking.
SCHNEIDER: You're talking about teaching teachers and I know your last position was in supporting principals. How will you use that experience in the district?
IVERSON: Principals must be the instructional leaders in the building. They are the people responsible for instruction in the building. So assuring that they have that capacity and that their skill set is around how that looks is through monthly (professional development) with them - or however the schedule is - (professional development) around that so that they then take that back and implement it in their schools.
SCHNEIDER: And with the partnership now, Wilkinsburg middle and high school students are going to Westinghouse. What will the district's role be with those students?
IVERSON: Well we certainly aren't absolved, I think. They are gone, they are no longer our problem, that's not how ... from every meeting I've had since coming here, that's ongoing. Our plan is to hopefully be part of those discussions. I hope to meet the new superintendent. I know he's new there too. As well as just be part of discussions as our next cohort goes there, our sixth grade kids. Because we are still sending kids there every year, so we need to better that process and learn from this year what went well and what didn't. So as we get prepared for our new class entering it's even a smoother transition.
SCHNEIDER: Those students now attending PPS, they still live in Wilkinsburg, so they're still part of the community. Do you think it's the district's responsibility to try to keep them involved in the community in some way? Or is your job going to focus solely on these elementary schools?
IVERSON:We've already begun to discuss how we're going to try to have one of the major football games here in Wilkinsburg. We still want our kids to know they are Wilkinsburg residents. I think we do have an obligation to make sure they still are immersed in this community and not totally detached from it.
SCHNEIDER: With that, what are your priorities when you start this new school year?
IVERSON: Well my first 100 days I'm going to be very deliberate about my transition. I'm going to take time to build relationships with all of the various constituent groups. I'm hoping Ed (Donovan, president of the school board) and I can sit and talk about who are those pockets that I can just get out there and be the voice for the district? What's going well? What can be improved? And what they recommend we do? And gathering all of that advice and recommendations to form where we need to go as a district when we talk strategically.