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New life for Pittsburgh's Schenley High

Not long ago, Pittsburgh's Schenley High School had all the earmarks of a depressed inner-city school: deteriorating physical plant, an all-black student body, soaring dropout rate, and dismal academic performance. But the school's image has shifted radically in the last three years. Beginning in 1983, Schenley became Pittsburgh's High School Teacher Center, a place where educators from all parts of the city can sharpen their classroom skills. The school attracted top teachers -- 180 applicants for 75 openings -- district superintendent Richard Wallace recalls. ``Magnet'' programs such as international studies -- designed to draw high-achieving students -- were placed there. Physical improvements, including construction of a new gym, are under way.

Schenley is also piloting Pittsburgh's ``critical thinking'' curriculum, aimed at getting high school students to wrestle with Kant, Bacon, and other classical philosophers. What goes on now at Schenley is a kind of multilayered education -- for both children and teachers.

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A visitor to Harry Bratsky's ninth-grade social studies class sees something akin to a college-level discussion seminar, with Mr. Bratsky firing questions. The students come back with some fairly spirited answers about social security funding and other issues.

A short walk down one of Schenley's cavernous halls, Roger Babusci -- a former Pennsylvania ``teacher of the year'' -- helps a class of 10 or 15 pupils negotiate the mysteries of punctuation. These students, from a mix of ethnic backgrounds, need help with fundamental language skills.

In the music room, Ralph Hill admonishes the girls' chorus, ``You may not realize it, but you have to sing this Thursday in front of strangers. . . . Sing it now like you're going to sing it Thursday!'' Dr. Hill is one of 25 clinical resident teachers (CRTs) at Schenley. They serve as mentors to other teachers in the district, along with handling regular classroom responsibilities of their own.

Four times a year, a new set of 46 to 48 teachers comes to Schenley to begin an eight-week training program. Their regular duties are taken up by replacement teachers assigned from the teacher center.

The first two weeks of the program are spent in seminars devoted to educational theory. The last six focus on applying that theory in Schenley's classrooms, under the tutelage of CRTs. Each visiting teacher conducts 12 classes during his or her stay. Conferences follow each class -- a time for comment and useful criticism.

``We're trying to develop a collegial atmosphere,'' says Judy Johnston, director of the teacher center. Throughout the program, she explains, every effort is made to be ``sure that observing of other teachers is seen as positive,'' not threatening. As many as 200 teachers were involved in drawing up plans for the center, so it's less something imposed on them than something they helped shape.

Evaluations of those who've been through the program have shown clear gains in such areas as responsiveness to students and ability to concentrate on ``the learning task,'' Dr. Johnston notes.

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The training program at Schenley is scheduled to end after 1987. By that time all the high school teachers in the district -- 900 of them -- will have taken part.

The ``big-buck question,'' as Johnston puts it, is how well gains made at the center will be maintained. One key, she says, could be the role of department chairmen in the city's various high schools. They could be instrumental in reinforcing the teaching theory and practice learned at Schenley.

Meanwhile, students at Schenley have shown their own ``dramatic improvement in achievement,'' according to superintendent Wallace. In language skills, for instance, tests show 68 percent of the student body is at or above national norms. Three years ago the figure was 27 percent.

Even in ``filtering out'' the white students -- the school is now 30 percent white -- there has been remarkable improvement, adds Jake Milliones, president of the city's board of education. Not long ago Schenley was ``thumbs down,'' he says. The main thing, in his view, is that a ``climate of learning'' has been built within the school and should persist well beyond the four-year run of the teacher center.

Wallace points out that the Schenley Teacher Center costs over $1 million a year and a Ford Foundation grant was crucial in getting the project rolling. He and others in the district, however, have few doubts that it's a sound investment in the future of education in their city.

Second of two articles on Pittsburgh schools. The first ran Friday.

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