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Wilkinsburg Community Says Goodbye To Students' Safe Place

  Interim Wilkinsburg High School Principal Shawn Johnston’s voice reverberated through the intercom into bare, empty hallways on the second to last day of school. Packing boxes had arrived in the office.

Students weren’t in the building as teachers finished grades and prepared for the school to permanently close following Friday’s 7 p.m. graduation. Their last full day in the school was Wednesday.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Interim Principal Shawn Johnston sits at her desk on the penultimate day of Wilkinsburg High School. Students will attend Pittsburgh's Westinghouse Academy in the fall.

"I really hate it, you know, because there are a lot of memories here," said Roxanne Robinson, who graduated in the 1970s.

Robinson's three children attended Wilkinsburg and her oldest granddaughter, Shadai, will walk among the school's final 25 graduates.

Just two weeks ago, she donned a sequined yellow dress and posed for pictures with her date, Bill, beside a shiny, white SUV. The two took the stage that afternoon in the annual community "line up," prompting walk out songs and bawdy introductions of each young couple across a red-carpeted stage.

Shadai laughed and complained. Her feet hurt from the heels, she said, and her family wanted too many photographs.

The closure is bittersweet, Robinson sad.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Senior Shadai Robinson was crowned Wilksinsburg High School's final prom queen last week.

"It was a great school, great teachers, fantastic community," she said. "And you just hate to see it. But under the circumstances, you have to do what’s best."

The school board voted in September to close the school at the end of the year citing declining enrollment and consistently poor performance on state exams. Though technically a suburb of Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg's median household income is near the poverty line, and its violent crime rate is much higher than surrounding neighborhoods.

Football Coach Mike Fulmore said many of his students routinely cope with personal tragedy. In March, five people, including a pregnant woman, were gunned down at a backyard cookout a mile from the school. A few students were related to at least one victim.

“They were back in school two days later," Fulmore said. "We had another family whose brother got shot down. He was a little older, but he got shot down and they found him at 9 o’clock in the morning and by 12 o’clock, both of his younger siblings were in school that day. So these kids definitely feel like (the school) is a safe place. Especially in the environment that surrounds this building.”

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Tiger Pride signs hang throughout the school. This year the track season was cancelled because of the school closing.

Alumni like Robinson say they want the largely bare but structurally sound 106-year-old building preserved. The district plans to spend $10 million renovating its two elementary schools, but the fate of its high school is less certain.

That building helped shape Wilkinsburg's identity, Robinson said. It brought people together.

And now, parents are worried that the school their children are transferring to isn’t any better than the one they’re leaving behind.

State school performance data show many Wilkinsburg students consistently perform well below grade level, but Westinghouse Academy – where Wilkinsburg's rising sixth- through twelth-graders will attend this fall – is the lowest performing 6-12 school in both the Pittsburgh Public Schools district and in all of Allegheny County.

Fulmore said Westinghouse, with its larger student population and larger fiscal budget, might be able to offer more opportunities to the students. The program boasts more athletic teams, advanced placement courses and scholarships like the Pittsburgh Promise.

At a joint field trip between Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg students in North Park last week, Latoya Hamm, Pittsburgh's transition counselor for the merger, said students, especially those in middle school, are nervous about leaving the only school community many of them have known.

It's tough, she said, coming to a new school, making new friends and meeting new teachers. When the school year starts, Wilkinsburg kiddos will need to know how to navigate the new environment and build new, formative social connections.

Wilkinsburg eighth-grader Shakara Fields said she expects to stick with her friends.

“'Cause this is all we need, is each other,” she said. “'Cause we’ve been with each other ever since we was little. And we’ve been through so much together.”

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Distinguished alumni plaques hang in the main hallway of the school.

Fulmore said at first the students might feel displaced.

“I think it will be easier for the younger kids than the older kids,” he said. “For some of them, they’re almost going to be like refugees. They’re going to be in a foreign land with not friendly faces, and it’s going to take them awhile.”

Principal Johnston, herself a career educator in Wilkinsburg, said now it's up to the community to envelope their Homewood-bound students with love and lots of support.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
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