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Push To Boost Enrollment At Lawrenceville’s Public Schools Brought Community Together In New Ways

Joaquin Gonzalez
90.5 WESA
Dave Breingan stands on the steps outside the entrance to Arsenal Middle School on 40th Street in Lawrenceville.

When Dave Breingan walks into the gym at Arsenal Middle School during an after school program, about a dozen kids immediately run up to him and say, "hi!"

Though Breingan doesn't work at the school, he's still a familiar face. He knows the kids through his involvement in PEP Rally, which he described as a triangular link between Lawrenceville’s families, the public schools and the neighborhood’s wider community. 

90 Neighborhoods, 90 Good Stories is a weekly series celebrating people who make the place they live a better place to live.

“We try to make each of those different points on the triangle more accountable to each other and bringing them together ultimately to benefit children in our neighborhood," said Breingan.

Lawrenceville United, a non-profit dedicated to improving quality of life in the neighborhood, started PEP Rally in 2013 during a period of declining enrollment at the community’s three public schools, Arsenal Elementary, Arsenal Middle and Woolslair Elementary. Breingan was the program’s first staff member. 

He said he started out going door-to-door in the neighborhood and talking to parents. He found that a lot of parents felt there weren't many opportunities to get involved with the schools.

"I heard a lot of things like, ‘What is it even like inside the school?'" Breingan said. "'Can we come and see the school? There’s really a pool at Arsenal?'"

Monica Tillman, who’s been a social worker at Arsenal for 25 years, said that because school staff already have a lot on their plate, they often don’t have the extra time to bring people in from the community.

"A lot of our staff not only work with the children during the day, but they work with them after school. They’re coaches, they’re tutoring kids, and so their day is pretty full," Tillman said. 

PEP Rally started bringing teachers and families together at neighborhood events like a Halloween party, which led to more collaborations within the schools.

At Arsenal, for example, PEP Rally partnered with Goodwill to create a program where the parents of English as a second language students could come and take their own English classes in the evenings. The program also offers childcare. 

In 2013, Woolslair’s enrollment was down to just more than 100 students, with Pittsburgh Public Schools recommending that it close. Breingan and PEP Rally worked with parents and teachers to help create a successful proposal to revitalize the school as a partial magnet for science, technology, engineering, arts and math, known as STEAM.

Breingan pointed out that parent volunteers are also involved in much of PEP Rally's work at the schools.

"Everything from greeting kids as they walk in the door, to helping teachers with more administrative or clerical work, to helping teachers plan events. In some cases, parents volunteer inside the classroom and work directly with kids," said Breingan.

Similarly, he said that PEP Rally has been able to help empower parents to advocate for changes they wanted to see at the schools.

"For example, parents have campaigned to get additional bus stops, to get crossing guards back at important intersections and to get smaller class sizes," said Breingan.

Tillman said that PEP Rally's work has been important to Arsenal's success as a school.

"When parents and school staff can partner, it only strengthens what you provide for young people," said Tillman.

Over the last four years, Arsenal Middle School and Woolslair have both been recognized multiple times by the district for their students’ improvement in standardized test scores. Since 2014, enrollment at Woolslair has doubled.

Breingain said that teachers and administrators should receive most of the credit for academic successes at the schools.

"They are the ones leading academic performance for these kids, not us," Breingan said. "We try to play a role in supporting their efforts in building a positive school climate and supporting children and supporting families."

Throughout the years, Breingan has continued to make time to meet one on one with parents.

Rebecca Ferrer, who moved to Lawrenceville in 2015, said that Breingan and PEP Rally helped her acclimate and choose Woolslair for her kids.

"It was really helpful in deciding about the school and really helpful in deciding about the neighborhood, and getting involved in the neighborhood. I'm kind of an introvert and wouldn't necessarily show up to big events, so it was really nice to have the person-to-person interaction," said Ferrer.

Last year, Breingan transitioned to a new role at Lawrenceville United, taking over as executive director. He said that he wants to cast a wider net in making Lawrenceville more family friendly.

Next up? Fighting to make housing more equitable as the neighborhood continues to grow.

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