Penn Hills residents tour new school that’s ‘so beautiful’

After years, consolidation is a reality — but uncertainty remains


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Yajaira Galindo gazed around at the towering ceilings, freshly painted walls and gleaming tiled floor of the new Penn Hills Elementary School for the first time in awe and wonder.

She held the hands of her foster children as they explored the spacious cafeteria before taking a tour of the entire facility.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “So beautiful.”

The district opened the building to the public in a ceremony Saturday morning, when district administrators, including principal Kristin Brown and school board president Denise Graham-Shealey, spoke of the important role the community will play in facilitating the success of the newly consolidated elementary school.

The consolidation was a process years in the making, with countless community meetings and forums leading up to the announcement of the eventual closing of the district’s five remaining elementary schools: William Penn, Penn Hebron, Washington, Forbes and Dible. The new building has been under construction since 2010 and was built on the site of Dible Elementary after the building was razed.

District parent and board member Heather Hoolahan referred to some of the doubts from residents about the closings of community schools, to be replaced by a building that will house almost 1,300 students and more than 150 staff and faculty members.

“We as adults are much more afraid of change than our children,” she said during Saturday’s ceremony. “This is a wonderful opportunity to bring all our children from all of our neighborhoods all across the district together as one.”

Ms. Galindo was one of those residents. Security and management of such a large and young student population could prove challenging, she said.

“At first, I was worried about how they were going to make this work with all of these kids,” she said. “I think it looks well-organized. But how could you control so many kids? I’m hoping they’re preparing the teachers for this.”

Regardless of size, Alfred Galindo, her husband, said the district desperately needed a new and updated elementary facility to be academically competitive.

“As education and technology progresses, you have to progress with it,” Mr. Galindo said. “It helps teachers, parents and kids to have better facilities and access to these kinds of things.”

Declining enrollment and the need to cut costs were determining factors in the school consolidation, Ms. Graham-Shealey said. The renovations, however, came at a steep initial cost. Building the new high and elementary school and renovations to the middle school cost the district $140 million, in addition to moving administrative facilities to Linton Middle School. Administrators estimate decreased operational costs and upkeep for one elementary building instead of five could save the district about $3 million annually.

Students also would have improved access to services, spokeswoman Teresita Kolenchak said. Before consolidation, the elementary schools shared music and art teachers, as well as behavior and reading specialists. State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, praised the board for making a difficult choice in the midst of mixed reactions from community members.

“Sometimes you have to make tough decisions, especially when you have shrinking resources and a community that is still deciding which direction it wants to go,” he said.

One hope is the new school will attract primary age students who live in-district but are enrolled in either charter or private schools, and create a track that will keep them in-district through high school. Total district enrollment is approximately 3,900, with almost 1,500 other students enrolled outside of district public schools.

Parent Teka Thompson’s two children will be attending a public school in-district for the first time this year after transferring from Imagine Charter School. The new school, Ms. Thompson said, has resources like an art room, computer lab and fully stocked library, none of which were previously accessible to her 6- and 8-year old.

Although, like for many parents, size remains a concern for her, the benefits outweigh her concerns.

“My only concern is so many little kids in one space,” Ms. Thompson said. “I know this will introduce them to different kinds of arts, programs and different kinds of people.”

Josephine Finch, however, has had her son enrolled at Forbes Elementary since kindergarten. The transition to a new school for his last year before attending Linton Middle School for fifth grade, she said, will be an easy one.

“A lot of the teachers he’ll know. He makes friends easily,” she said. “A lot of the kids knew each other from other schools anyway, through soccer and dance and other things — they just didn’t go to school together.”

A plan years in the making gave her and other parents time to prepare for the consolidation, she said. She still intends to become an active member of the new school’s parent-teacher association because, for her, “It’s not about the building.”

“You don’t need three or four buildings and each one with a principal who runs it differently, because, at the end of the day, it’s about the people in it,” Ms. Finch said. “I know a lot of the teachers here. I know Mrs. Brown. Because I know them, I know my son will be happy here and get a good education.”

Correction, Aug. 10, 2014: This article has been updated to note that the school district constructed a new high school building in addition to the new elementary school; it previously said that the high school building was renovated. The middle school building was renovated. In addition, a reference to state Sen. Jay Costa has been restored. 


Clarece Polke: cpolke@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889 or on Twitter @clarepolke.

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