Why we fight for Schenley

It's a unique meeting place of cultures where high school doesn't seem like high school

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Last fall, the superintendent's office stepped on a hornet's nest when it proposed the end of historic Schenley High School. While I won't address the achievement gap or renovation costs -- wonks on both sides have debated these to death -- I'd like to explain, or try to, the zealotry with which we're dealing.

Jake Oresick graduated from Schenley High School in 2001 and lives in Highland Park (jake.oresick@gmail.com).

I'd like to explain the indignation and the ire and general outrage. I'd like to rationalize the deluge of phone calls and e-mails to board members. I'd like to tell observers -- those uninvolved, unsympathetic budgeteers thinking, What are these people on? -- why this high school matters and why we will not quit. I will try to quantify all we're losing.

Of course, there are tangible losses if we pull the plug on Schenley: an impossibly diverse student body; an innovative, energized faculty that corresponds to that diversity; a world-class ballet co-op and a legendary theatre program under one triangular roof. It's also the flagship institution of the Pittsburgh Public School district, nestled in the city's research corridor of universities, hospitals and libraries. But all of the protests, the op-eds and the unchecked emotion is about more than that.

It's about the tolerance cultivated when an Israeli-born born history instructor presents a cogent, calculated rationale for Palestinian statehood. It's about the social barriers collapsed when a senior class elects a mentally handicapped student prom queen. It's about the accident of young people connecting -- the popular with the petrified, gays with gangsters, Cranberry Township with the Crawford Square projects -- and never ever being the same again.

The collective Schenley tantrum incurred by the board of education was certainly about Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and reform, but it was also about identity: the sense of self and belonging and shared success from Schenley's improbable experiment.

To outsiders flummoxed by our devotion, you have my sympathies. We're a dynamic, impassioned and at-times excruciating group. But we love our school. When unwitting alumni discover each other -- in Carson Street bars or frenetic New York subway cars -- we greet like family, like we're long-lost members of some cosmic fraternity. It's all really kind of bizarre, and wonderful.

To Schenley students, parents and alumni, I remind you that we're not normal. It's true: Most people don't like high school. Most people didn't like it at the time, they don't like thinking about it now, and they certainly don't gush to disinterested college classmates and co-workers (or the Post-Gazette's editorial audience). Gene Kelly Awards, state basketball titles and a catalog of famous grads aren't subjects by which everyone is spellbound.

But there's a lot about our alma mater we want everyone to understand.

Whether or not this is the end, we want people to realize that Schenley is exceptional for having defied every traditional paradigm. It transformed the racial chasms of the post-Brown era into a veritable model of socio-economic and cultural fusion. It nurtured and exalted the arts at a time when other school districts eliminated them.

But its most remarkable trait, and the biggest reason for the visceral response to its demise, was the way people treated each other. For all of the high school horror stories about gangs and gossip, the Mean Girls cafeteria scene was an anomaly to us. Tina Fey's tongue-in-cheek critique of cliquish cruelty and social divisions -- burnouts, band geeks, hip jocks and burgeoning debs at strictly separate lunch tables -- was the teen how-to movie we forgot to see. We all just sort of sat together.

It's a high school, but it's not just a high school, and we're throwing a fit because we feel misled. We're fighting back like Spartans at Thermopylae because we resent the district's if-it-ain't-broke-break-it approach to its most unique institution. We're shouting at no one over all we're losing.

That's a school that, for all its faults, offers an oddly familial environment -- a buffer between parents and hormones and the other atrocities of adolescence -- and a wonderfully eclectic peer group who genuinely care for each other. A place where people from different neighborhoods, religious backgrounds, economic strata and, in many cases, different continents, live and learn and figure out life together.

That, really, is all we're losing.


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