By 1992, Joe Brown had been homeless much of his adult life and had spent most of two decades traveling the country, working odd jobs and fighting alcoholism. He'd quit school after the ninth grade -- he hadn't learned much even on the scattered days he attended -- and at age 42 never thought he could earn his high school equivalency diploma.
Faces of Connelly:
Who are the students?
When Brown enrolled at Connelley Technical Institute and Adult Learning Center that year, he was more interested in finding a cheap lunch and a comfortable hangout than getting the education he had given up years before.
Within three days at Connelley, however, administrators and teachers had persuaded Brown to try again. His math teacher, in particular, wouldn't take no for an answer, he recalled in an interview last week.
"She said, 'You absolutely can do this' and there was just something in her voice," said Brown, who graduated in 1993 as Connelley's student of the year and now manages neighborhood improvement projects for the Brightwood Civic Group on the North Side.
"I thought, 'Maybe I can' and I started hitting the books, hot and heavy."
Brown is among the thousands of Pittsburgh-area residents who have earned their high school equivalency diplomas, learned English as a second language, discovered how to read and do math, or mastered a trade such as plumbing and welding at Connelley since it opened on Sept. 1, 1930. He also might be among the last generation of students to find a second chance there at an education and job skills.
Pittsburgh Public School officials plan to close Connelley in August because of the expense of operating low-cost vocational classes in carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, pipe-fitting, practical nursing and other trades to any state resident.
Despite protests by dozens of loyal alumni and the teachers and administrators who guided their progress, members of the Pittsburgh school board plan to vote tomorrow evening on closing the school and ultimately selling the building.
Information Connelley officials gave to school board members last month shows that Connelley's enrollment last December stood at 730 students, or less than half the 1,800 students attending the school during the height of its enrollment in 1941, according to a history of the school written by Connelley teachers in 1980.
Because of the school's eroding student population and declining state funding -- the district lost $2.5 million in state funding for Connelley this year -- district officials have stepped back from educating adults, said Helen Faison, former deputy superintendent of schools.
"That's not what they're being held accountable for," Faison said. "They're responsible for the education of children and young adults."
In the early 1940s, however, Connelley did educate young people, as one of a half-dozen city vocational high schools that offered classes to prepare public school students to start trade work immediately after graduation. Connelley's huge shops were built in the late 1920s to emulate the era's most modern factories -- slanted windows in the roof to let in natural light, ventilation systems to purge paint vapors and sawdust from the air, and indoor streets between the ground-floor shops to allow trucks to deliver parts, building materials and equipment.
The building, unlike many high schools of the day, also included a cafeteria, gymnasium, auditorium and 75-meter swimming pool.
A place for trades
For Pittsburgh-area boys who wanted to work with their hands, Connelley was the place to be, according to Harry Habay, who graduated in March 1944.
Habay, the father of Republican state Rep. Jeff Habay of Shaler, hitchhiked to school and back again to his family's home in West Deer -- a trip that sometimes took five or six hours but seemed worth the effort, he said. He would have found a way to get to Connelley even if there had been a high school near his home, which there wasn't, he said.
"I didn't want to go to high school, I wanted to learn a trade," said Habay, who now is 78 and has owned his own heating and ventilation installation company since 1947. "I enjoyed working with my hands, and I'm still doing the same sheet metal work I started there in 1940."
During Habay's years at Connelley, machine and welding shops operated around the clock and the school's other shops ran two shifts a day to train workers how to produce materiel for World War II. After the war ended, veterans filled the school's shops and the three Quonset huts erected in its parking lot to learn trades and ease back into civilian life.
At the same time, the school began its co-operative apprentice program to help companies find well-trained workers -- and in many cases, to help students stay in school who otherwise would have had to drop out to support themselves or their families. By 1957, according to a Connelley yearbook of the time, 140 companies were participating in the program and employed 320 students at an average wage of $1.38 an hour, or $1,656 a year.
Although he didn't have a co-op job, Lee Herbermann found that the emphasis on learning a trade -- in his case, automotive service -- kept him motivated to stay in school even though academics left him cold. At Connelley, teachers such as Savero DonGiovanni, who taught history and later became vice principal, pushed Herbermann to make the most of his talents.
After Herbermann graduated in 1959 and took a job at a South Side service station, those expectations kept pushing him, he said.
"It didn't take me long to figure out that I didn't like having my hands dirty all the time," said Herbermann, who retired from his job as a sales manager at Gulf Oil Limited Partnership in 1999 at age 58. "Not that being a mechanic is a bad thing, but I had more potential than that. ... I thought I should do more than turning handles on greasy wrenches."
Connelley wasn't all about work and expectations, though. In the 1950s, the boys attended dances in the scuffed high school gymnasium under basketball hoops and a mirrored ball made by the students in the sheet metal shop. They also made toy trains in the cabinetry shop, designed and printed cookbooks on the school's presses and came up with other fund-raising ideas to support local charities in the Hill District, DonGiovanni said.
Changing the Hill
Connelley's neighbors in the Hill would soon endure profound changes. In 1955, the federal government gave the city $17.4 million in loans and grants to raze 95 acres of homes and shops in the lower Hill and build a cultural district known as the "Center for the Arts." The project ultimately displaced 8,000 Hill residents and created the Civic Arena, now Mellon Arena.
DonGiovanni could see much of the redevelopment from his classroom. At the time, the sight of the lower Hill's destruction didn't trouble him.
"We could look right across the way and see the trucks and the demolition and the houses coming down but only after you look back do you realize that for the people who lived there, that had to be devastating for them," DonGiovanni said. "For us, it seemed like renewal, but you don't understand the history you're taking away from the Hill."
As the federal government was pushing for redevelopment of inner cities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it also was emphasizing training unskilled adults to help them off welfare and retraining workers laid off from manufacturing jobs that were becoming increasingly automated.
In keeping with that emphasis, the school board decided to phase out the four-year high school program at Connelley as of 1968, move the vocational programs into area high schools and remake the school into a center for adult education.
While the school continued to offer free vocational programs, they were reduced to two-year courses meant to sharpen skills already acquired in high school. Connelley became a school to prepare for college, take remedial courses and polish technical skills with the ultimate aim of earning an associate's degree.
When Anthony Bellini took over as principal of Connelley in July 1973, he noticed many students were struggling to read the technical manuals they needed to repair cars and build carpentry projects. Bellini began administering tests to see how well new students could read and do math, and assigning them to remedial courses if necessary.
"It was glaring because as I said there was no distinction made about whether the student was a high school graduate or not," said Bellini, who served as principal until 1983. "We were getting a lot of students who had not really finished school -- they had not gotten what they should have gotten while they were in high school."
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pittsburgh's manufacturing jobs had begun to fade away as companies opted for cheaper labor overseas. Steel workers began retraining at the school as the area's mills shut down, Bellini said.
A new life
Many resisted because they couldn't believe the mills would stay closed.
"They said they were just doing this temporarily and that they were going to get called back to their jobs," Bellini said. "Part of our job was to tell them, 'It's going and it's almost gone and it's not coming back, so try to be happy in this new life.' "
Industrial jobs were hard to come by for some, but the city was still building, albeit slowly. Victor Beltran, a native of Peru, stopped to visit an uncle in Pittsburgh in 1985 on his way to New York City, and liked the city's sense of tradition and its ethnic diversity. He decided to stay.
Beltran signed up for Connelley's classes in English as a second language to polish his conversational and writing skills. It was the next step in his effort to start a new life in the United States, he said.
"English was one of my steps," said Beltran, now an architect for Astorino, a Downtown architectural firm. "Connelley was one of my steps, and then there was a step and a step and another step."
Although ESL classes and adult literacy and basic education classes continue to be free of charge, in the mid-1980s the school began charging about $200 a semester for vocational classes. In the early 1990s, that cost increased to $650 a semester, which it remains today. Tuition in the practical nursing program is $5,700 a year.
That tuition was much less expensive than comparable programs at local community colleges, which can charge as much as $20,000 for a two-year vocational program, according to Connelley officials. But it prevented many students who couldn't afford even that relatively modest fee from learning welding, plumbing, electrical work and other skills at Connelley, eroding the school's enrollment, according to Alfred Fascetti, who served as director until 2000.
As costs continued to rise through the 1990s, the school increasingly relied on state funding. But last year, a state budget that was finalized six month late left out the usual $2.5 million annual appropriation for vocational programs, and Pittsburgh Public School officials refused to take over the cost.
Now, current Connelley students are scrambling to find new places to finish programs such as plumbing and practical nursing. Many are thinking less about losing a piece of city history than about failing to finish their studies and find a decent job.
But last week, Joe Brown still talked fondly about his free classes in adult basic education at Connelley -- and about how he never missed a day of school or even showed up late.
"Many a time I walked that hill instead of taking the bus," said Brown, "to make sure I had perfect attendance."
Amy McConnell can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1548.