'Arsenal pride' takes root

Students at the Lawrenceville school toil the soil to spruce up nearby park

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On the ground lay a banner with an outline of the words "Arsenal Pride."

Around its sides, parents, teachers and students were filling in the words -- not with paint or marker, but with empty bottles, pieces of plastic, discarded paper and other garbage picked up from the park grounds in an effort to beautify the space.

"Pride can be made out of trash," said Khashona Roberts, an eighth-grader at Pittsburgh Arsenal 6-8 in Lawrenceville.

This activity was one of many that took place during Thursday's Arsenal Service Day in the Park.

Throughout the day, nearly 170 students at Arsenal 6-8 and Arsenal PreK-5, both in the same building, forewent their traditional school day to spend time sprucing up nearby Arsenal Park.

The day's activities included making small bird feeders, learning the history of the area and its flora and fauna, and planting flowers.

As part of "Pep Rallies," a program aiming to encourage parents to be more active in local schools, Lawrenceville United community organizer Dave Breingan began meeting with groups of parents at the beginning of the academic year to brainstorm ideas on how to strengthen the school.

Tina Russell, parent of a fourth-grader and a fifth-grader at Arsenal PreK-5, had an idea: Have the students do some sort of service project, both to help the neighborhood and to instill community pride.

"Parents felt that the reputation that Arsenal has in the community isn't really fair to the school," Mr. Breingan said. "They feel that it's a really good school, and sometimes the perceptions in the community didn't really match that."

To get things started, Mr. Breingan linked the small group of parents with Public Allies, an Americorps program. They brought in service groups, nonprofits and sponsors -- a sign in the park listed and thanked more than 25 different local groups, including MGR Foundation, Tree Pittsburgh and Friends of Arsenal Park.

The project also was awarded a Love Your Block grant from the mayor's office, which provided them with $2,000 and comprised most of the event's funding.

All event participants interviewed agreed on the significance of the event: They wanted to show visitors and community members that they are proud of their neighborhood.

"A lot of us come to this park every day," said Tony Medina, an eighth-grader at Arsenal 6-8 and a member of the Young Male Social Group. "We don't want to see it filthy."

Dion Brown, another eighth-grader and Young Male Social Group member, said he found it more important to show out-of-town visitors that the community is mindful.

"Without parks, we have nowhere to sit and reflect, to bring your family or to enjoy nature," said Nanette Bridges, a Bloomfield resident and parent of an Arsenal sixth-grader.

She and Jaline Cunningham, who recently moved to Bloomfield with her eighth-grader, participated in making the trash banner. Both said it was important for them, as mothers, to set an example for their children and teach them the importance of maintaining the community landscape.

Participants also were excited to have their ideas incorporated into the planning of the park's future.

Landscape architects from MKSK, the firm in charge of developing a park master plan, led a workshop that allowed participants to map out their own versions of Arsenal Park. Many teachers and parents said they wanted to use the park more in the students' education.

Stephen James, a seventh-grade math teacher at Arsenal 6-8, said he hoped for an outdoor classroom to be constructed in the park.

Teachers and school administrators spoke of school and community pride, but also about the school's emphasis on public service.

Arsenal 6-8 principal Patti Camper pointed to her clubs such as the Young Male Social Group, Girl Scouts and the Environmental Justice Club, and said her staff members have previously taken students to perform service projects elsewhere.

"Any time that [the students] can contribute to the betterment of our community ... is a positive," Ms. Camper said. "We underestimate their commitment to improving their own community. Middle schoolers can have pride in more things than their clothes or their shoes or what level they're on in Angry Birds."

While students worked hard at improving the park throughout the day, they enjoyed the time off from classes as well.

When asked why this event is important to him, seventh-grader Seti Ezekial said, "This is not only helping our school and the park but helping the community around it."

Then, without missing a beat, he added, "And I get to skip school," before returning to carefully constructing his bird feeder.

Wesley Yiin: wyiin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1723.

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