Saturday Diary / Clairton is a winner, whatever the score

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It's been great fun following the amazing success of Clairton High School's football team this year. I've taken in all of the local coverage of the Bears' record-setting season as well as the wonderful national stories in The New York Times, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and elsewhere. I am a very proud alumna of the CHS Class of 1971.

The athletic prowess of these young men, guided and motivated by a great coach and his assistants, is a wonderful sports story, of course, but I know it's more than that. Yesterday, before their state title victory in Hershey, they had already won. Their families, neighbors, teachers, administrators, school board members and other supporters made sure of that -- by keeping the financially troubled school district open and the community's spirit alive.

You have to come from a town like Clairton to understand this. I have such great memories of my high school years and the excitement of watching our sports teams compete and often win. My role was small: I was a member of the band and the yearbook staff who helped cheer on and record it all. Those Friday nights we marched through town to the stadium or traveled around the Mon Valley to face our foes are times my high school friends and I still talk about when we get together.

Of course, it wasn't always happy times. There was racial tension and strife, violent episodes that scarred and divided what was then a mid-sized school district. But we survived them.

My education benefited from our high school's diverse population and having to work through tough situations. My classmates and I emerged ready to face the inevitable challenges in college, work and life, gaining street smarts along with our academic preparation. The young men who played sports earned scholarships and headed off to college, much as this year's young players will do.

The racial tension and the collapse of the steel industry back in the 1980s inflicted major damage on Clairton. Many people left town to find work elsewhere or sent their children to private schools. The lack of revenue and resources needed to keep the school district solvent, let alone thriving, forced the closure of schools into the single building that remains today.

Three of the four children in my family graduated from CHS before my parents moved. When I was married in 1983, my late husband John located his dental practice in Jefferson Hills, so that's where we raised our children and became active in the community.

We stayed connected to Clairton in as many ways as we could. Many of John's patients lived there. I volunteered with the Consortium for Public Education, a wonderful organization based in McKeesport that supports schools like Clairton's, among other things.

I have visited CHS to talk to students about journalism (and would love to go back again) and have taught Clairton students in my Allegheny Intermediate Unit high school journalism apprenticeships and in my Point Park University classes. We've loved going to Clairton's fabulous municipal pool and cheered on my late uncle Dom Serapiglia's political career as a Clairton councilman and mayor. My brother, his wife and a business partner own Terrace Gardens, a Clairton bar and restaurant. And my official address remains Clairton. I'm stubborn about that.

Now, with the Bears' season having ended, I know that reality returns and news coverage will focus again on the school district's financial woes. Calls will resume from Harrisburg for it to merge with a neighboring district.

Seeing four adjoining districts reject that possibility earlier this year didn't surprise me. I had been part of West Jefferson Hills' first strategic planning attempts in 1994. Toward the end of the yearlong effort, a small subgroup began to meet separately on a number of issues and came to reject any kind of merger with Clairton for a myriad reasons. I objected to their secretive methods and complained loudly about their findings.

After 18 years, I don't recall everything I said, but, based on personal experience, I had to stand up for Clairton and its students, and I would do so again today. I was never asked to serve on another strategic planning committee.

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This month, I sent a donation to my alma mater with instructions to use it for the costs associated with the Bears team or any other need. I wish I could have added another zero or two to help them out more.

I did it because I want to see Clairton continue to have its own schools. It seems to me that experts could figure out a way to combine expertise and resources from around Allegheny County to keep these small schools alive. You only have to ride through Duquesne or read about it to see what happens with forced mergers or school closures. It's devastating.

At the end of every summer, I gather with hundreds of my fellow CHS alumni at an all-class reunion at Clairton Park. For a long time, it was kept limited to classes up through the 1960s because organizers feared accommodating more than the 800-plus who would attend regularly, many traveling hundreds of miles to see friends, neighbors and teachers.

I volunteer with the organizing group now, a great bunch of people. This year I chatted with a man from a 1950s class who was holding two wrapped packages. He had come home from Virginia, he said, and he had bought these gifts for CHS teachers who were scheduled to attend. "It's the least I can do," he told me. "They changed my life."

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Helen Plavchak Fallon is a professor of journalism and director of the Honors Program at Point Park University and a part-time copy editor at the Post-Gazette (hfallon@pointpark.edu).


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