The last class of Schenley represents bittersweet chapter in a proud history
Pittsburgh's former Schenley High School, seen from the top of Pitt's Cathedral of Learning. The school will close at the end of the school year.
A framed photograph of the first graduating class of Schenley High School in 1918 is part of senior James Hill's collection of memorabilia.
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It started 95 years ago, in a grand limestone edifice filled with light and fresh air. It will end in a nondescript hallway in a windowless former middle school, likely soon to be demolished itself.
Though the battle over Pittsburgh Schenley High School was fought three years ago, the school will sputter to its end this week. There will be no more DeJuan Blairs bringing the Spartans a state basketball championship, no more Andy Warhols prowling its art classes, no more Ray Browns playing in the orchestra.
What remains are the roughly 190 kids who stuck it out -- forsaking pep rallies, after-school clubs and even a decent lunch hour -- to give Schenley a proper goodbye.
"They fought to stay together and now we're at the end," said principal Sophia Facaros. "The physical space has changed, but what the heart of Schenley is has never changed."
The Pittsburgh school board voted to close Schenley in 2008, after receiving estimates of between $42 million and $87 million to renovate the building, including fixing issues with asbestos and falling plaster. The 5-4 decision didn't go down easy with Schenley supporters, who tried rallies, protests and petitions to keep the school open.
The building has been vacant since the end of the 2008 school year. While there has been interest from several prospective buyers, all eventually decided not to purchase the building.
As a concession to Schenley supporters, the ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders who had started at the Schenley building were moved to the former Reizenstein Middle School building in East Liberty, so that they could finish high school as Schenley graduates. They share the building with Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 and for this, their final year, the Schenley students are all housed in two hallways in a second-floor corner of the building.
For a group who didn't have the traditional trappings of high school, Schenley students have an abundance of school spirit. "It's a powerful thing to have, the tradition," said senior Jonquil Schaller of Stanton Heights, her voice trembling when she talks about what it means to her to win one final Schenley girls soccer city championship in her senior year.
She also says, excitedly, that St. John's University in New York, where she will be a freshman next year, has the same red and black school colors as Schenley.
It's safe to say that no student appreciates Schenley more than senior James Hill, who has developed a fanatical devotion to Schenley that his classmates reserve for, say, video games or the Steelers. In a sense he has Schenley in his blood: His older sisters graduated from Schenley; his uncle, Fred Lucas, was the school's longtime track and field coach.
As the unofficial school historian, he's quick to show you a collection he's amassed of photographs and architectural drawings of the old Schenley school. He'll tell you that Schenley was the nation's first $1 million school building, that it's won the most state basketball championships, that the diving board had to be removed from the pool because students were hitting their heads on the ceiling.
For his junior year project, he built a paper replica of the old Schenley High School, spending hours upon hours razoring more than 100 windows with an X-Acto knife and equipping the model with lights.
Ask James and other students whether they are happy to graduate from Schenley -- rather than having the school be shut down entirely three years ago -- and the unequivocal answer is yes.
"This isn't what any of us pictured high school would be like," he said. "Through all our adversity, I feel like we've held it together pretty well. None of us gave up on the school."
But that doesn't mean that things have worked out as they would have liked.
"It's been really sad," said Nubia Williams of Stanton Heights. "We're in a corner, literally. We see the same people. I don't feel like we really got the whole high school experience."
Part of it is that the current Schenley seniors are sick of the confusion surrounding their school. They'll often hear "Didn't that close?" or "I thought that was Obama" when asked where they go to school.
And part of it is that Schenley has become an odd, half-formed school. In the office, a visitor gets a generic name tag -- no point in ordering more specialized Schenley High School stickers at this point. Some teachers made efforts to decorate the classrooms they would be occupying for three years, but others didn't bother. Students ate lunch just after 10 a.m. to work around the Obama students' schedules, and had limited electives and after-school clubs.
Schenley's robotics program couldn't be housed at Reizenstein and was moved to Pittsburgh Peabody High School -- some students, including James, eventually gave up on the daily bus rides required to continue in the program. The school's highly acclaimed musical also couldn't be staged at Reizenstein and was held at Peabody.
Schenley certainly isn't the first high school to close -- Peabody, with an even-longer history and a roster of famous alumni of its own, also is closing this year (see accompanying story). But schools don't often close when they are thriving, as students and teachers argue was the case with Schenley.
"It was an eclectic mix of students that all worked together somehow," said Walter Moser, who coaches baseball at Schenley and has taught history there since 1984. "It was a school you'd be hard-pressed to find today in most cities."
During Mr. Moser's tenure, Schenley was known for its innovative Teacher Center, which helped train every teacher in the school district and drew a visit from U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, and for the International Baccalaureate program that helped improve student achievement from second-worst to second-best in the city.
While some students and teachers have accepted the closing as ancient history, others still wonder whether Schenley could have been saved. The closing of Schenley helped launch a massive realignment of East End middle and high schools, including the new Science and Technology Academy for grades six-12, the new 6-12 Barack Obama Academy for International Studies, University Prep 6-12 at Milliones and the single-gender academies at Westinghouse High School.
With all the money spent on renovations and new programs, they wonder, couldn't they have just fixed Schenley?
It's a question that school board President Sherry Hazuda has heard many times.
She understands the sentiment, she says, but it's not quite as much money, and it's not quite the same. "We have not spent that kind of money on a building," she said. "We have spent money on programs. Is Sci-Tech costing us money? It surely is, but it is a different thing."
Furthermore, said Ms. Hazuda, some of the money the district is spending on new programs is covered by federal or Gates Foundation grant money that would not have paid for Schenley building renovations.
Ms. Hazuda was one of the four board members who voted against closing Schenley in 2008 because she had hoped to find some middle ground solution that would "spend less money to keep the Schenley spirit alive," she said. "I don't know what it is, but certain schools have so much pride, and you can't duplicate it."
Looking back three years later, Ms. Hazuda thinks closing Schenley was the right decision, assuming the cost estimates on fixing it were correct. She sees the fact that no buyers have been found for the building as a sign that remediation costs truly are prohibitive.
But given what is being lost in the demise of a functional, proud city high school, it's hard for her to feel confident about the decision to close it.
"In a lot of cases, hindsight is 20/20," she said. "In this, it isn't."
First Published May 29, 2011 12:00 am