Wilkinsburg HS students sentimental as century-old school closes doors
Kimberly Harris cried when the final bell of the school year rang at Wilkinsburg High School. She grabbed students and hugged them before they walked out the door for the last time.
Her tears turned to laughter as teachers consoled her, because this was no ordinary last day of school.
Friday was the final day of classes before the 106-year-old high school is shuttered and its students are sent to Westinghouse Academy in nearby Homewood.
“It’s really sad for me,” said Harris, who graduated from Wilkinsburg in 1981 and returned to work as the school guidance office secretary for 17 years. “I know I worked really, really hard. I feel like we should have survived.”
Wilkinsburg has slipped to become one of the worst-performing high schools in the state in recent years. Enrollment dropped as families moved away or transferred their children to private and charter schools. State data show the number of students at the school dropped from 448 during the 2010-11 school year to 206 this year. The district was forced to drastically cut back on staff, course offerings and extracurricular activities.
The district will pay for its remaining 200 or so middle- and high-school students to attend Westinghouse as part of an arrangement with Pittsburgh Public Schools that was finalized in October.
Eighteen students showed up for the hourlong last day. They spent it in the cafeteria, cracking jokes, signing yearbooks and talking about their summer jobs.
Bidding farewell was difficult for Daveon White, who will be a senior next year at Westinghouse. He was one of several students who lingered after dismissal to say goodbye to the teachers and staff.
“There’s a lot of memories in this school,” said White, 17. “I will just miss it.”
Pamela Drane, who worked as an English teacher and librarian at Wilkinsburg High School for 12 years, believes her students will do well at Westinghouse, but that didn’t make it any easier to see them go.
“It’s hard to say goodbye to a tradition,” she said.
That tradition began in 1910, when Wilkinsburg High School was built. The four-story building on Wallace Avenue features grand marble staircases and elegant bannisters.
Thousands walked the school’s halls during its century-long history, including Maurice Robinson, who founded the Scholastic publishing company. He published the first editions of the Western Pennsylvania Scholastic in his mother’s sewing room in the family’s Wilkinsburg home.
The district has yet to determine what to do with the building, said Superintendent John Frombach. For now, workers are taking inventory of the supplies and equipment.
Drane will be moved to one of Wilkinsburg’s two elementary schools next year. The hardest part, she said, is that she won’t be able to watch her younger students graduate.
“You get very attached to them,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.
Drane said that when she began teaching at the high school slightly more than a decade ago, 90 to 100 students a year graduated from Wilkinsburg.
On Friday night, 25 seniors walked across the auditorium stage during Wilkinsburg’s commencement ceremony. Families and friends packed into the auditorium and cheered loudly as the red- and blue-clad graduates accepted their diplomas.
About two dozen alumni were in the audience and stood to be recognized at the start of the ceremony. Also attending were state Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington, Wilkinsburg Mayor John Thompson and other community leaders.
District leaders acknowledged that the Class of 2016 would be the last to walk across the Wilkinsburg stage, but the two-hour ceremony mostly focused on the pride and accomplishments of the graduates.
“Please believe that you shine,” said Jason Boll, a former Wilkinsburg English teacher who teaches in Pittsburgh. The seniors asked him to come back and speak at their commencement ceremony.
Frombach said he wanted this year’s graduation to be uplifting for the students and their families.
“I wanted this to be a celebration,” he said, “not a funeral.”
Shawn Johnston, who was the high school’s principal for the past three months, said she tried to instill that attitude in the younger students on their last day.
“I don’t want them to be sad. It’s not the end of the world,” she said. “But it could be the beginning of a new world.”
For students like Deasya Mitchell, who will be a sophomore at Westinghouse, it’s hard to understand why the school had to close. Some of her teachers will be joining her at her new school.
“It hurt me inside,” she said.
Though she was upset the district wasn’t able to draw students back and turn Wilkinsburg around, Harris said opportunity lies ahead.
“It has to be better than what they’ve had here,” she said.
Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review.