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Marching to a new beat: Pittsburgh's Perry High is a rare enrollment winner

Five teenagers on a stage.
Stephanie Strasburg
From left, Perry Traditional Academy students Josey Cooley, 16, of Perry North, Aaliyha Thompson, 16, of Allegheny Center, Mahlae Pollard, 16, of Perry North, Connie Howard, 15, of Brighton Heights, Makaila Nyambe, 16, of Brighton Heights, and Adevion Cooper, 17, of Summer Hill, run a scene during drama club rehearsal after school, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Perry North. Cooley is directing the club’s spring play, a zombie comedy that the students chose to produce.

When Josey Cooley first started attending Pittsburgh’s Perry Traditional Academy earlier this year, the school hadn’t had a drama club since 2021. Now, just months later, students are getting ready to put on a dinner show set in a zombie apocalypse.

“We're, like, so close to the finish line. It feels impossible that we did this,” said Cooley, a junior at Perry who’s directing the show. “But we did it.”

Cooley and her peers attribute much of the show’s success to their music teacher, Aaron Taylor, and his efforts to expand the school’s arts offerings. Earlier this school year, Taylor also relaunched the school’s marching band, which had been dormant since the pandemic.

Each new program, he said, is a chance to provide more for current students at Perry and hopefully attract new ones. Donning jackets and plumes in the school’s colors — blue and white — Taylor frequently takes the marching band into the community to perform at local middle schools and events.

A man stands next to a stage with several people seated behind him.
Stephanie Strasburg
Aaron Taylor, a music teacher, drama club instructor, marching band director at Perry Traditional Academy, talks to students during play rehearsal after school, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Perry North. Taylor says he stays beyond the regular school day three to four days a week for the various extracurricular activities he leads.

“We're building those connections, and it's getting sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders excited to come to high school,” Taylor said. “Not just for high school, but because they know that there are other opportunities there for them.”

It’s all part of a school-led effort to transform Perry into a premier option for the North Side, with offerings in arts and career and technical education pathways for students across Pittsburgh. Educators have partnered with dozens of community organizations and nonprofits during the past few years to increase the number and variety of programs offered there.

“I want to increase enrollment [and] achievement, but I want the North Side students to have a first-choice high school,” said principal Molly O’Malley-Argueta. “And so that's what we're really working hard for at Perry.”

A person in a uniform hugs another person with two others looking on.
Stephanie Strasburg
From left, Jerien Perry, 15, and Ace Nuttall, 16, of Brighton Heights, watch as Poette Badamo, 15, of Fineview, gives a hug to Silas Sawyer, 15, of Manchester, as they all suit up to perform as Perry Traditional Academy’s marching band, Thursday, April 18, 2024, at the school in Perry North. The students have been traveling with Aaron Taylor, Perry’s marching band director, to represent their school’s band at other schools throughout the city. Taylor hopes the visits to primary and middle schools will encourage other students to choose Perry Traditional Academy and marching band.

‘Better than yesterday, not as good as tomorrow.’

Perry is the North Side’s only public high school, though more than three-quarters of the neighborhood’s students have been drawn away to private schools, charters and specialized magnet programs in other parts of Pittsburgh.

Perry is one of PPS’s smallest high schools, serving about 430 students. Of those students, 75% are Black, 88% are economically disadvantaged and nearly 30% receive special education services. As of 2023, the school offers fewer Advanced Placement courses than any other high school in the district.

Despite this, Perry was one of just two high schools in PPS that saw an increase in its student population last year, even as districtwide enrollment continued to decline. The school added about 75 students in the past year, a feat some groups attribute to family engagement efforts led by the school staff and community organizations.

“I just want them to see the school as a hub,” O’Malley-Argueta said. “I always feel like your school is your staple in your community, so parents should always feel welcome.”

In addition to offering more arts programming, school leaders at Perry have worked to ensure organizations local to the North Side have a consistent presence at the school. Staff with the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Moonshot Museum, Project Destiny and Urban Impact — all based on the North Side — are frequently at Perry to provide students with hands-on programming, mentorship and emotional support.

Four teens sit in blue lighting.
Stephanie Strasburg
Students in music tech class work together on building beats at Perry Traditional Academy’s studio, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Perry North.

Brenda Gregg, executive director of Project Destiny, is one of the many community partners who came together to support the area’s struggling students.

“Perry is in a community that cares,” she said. “I think that's made a big difference.”

Perry’s partners also extend beyond the neighborhood. The University of Pittsburgh, for instance, has offered College in High School [CHS] courses to students at the school since 2021.

English teacher Jason Boll said many students have left those courses ready to succeed in college. The next bridge Boll said educators at Perry must cross: finding ways to empower students to put their new skills into action.

“I think we still need to see more students believe that college is an option and a route, and one that they can succeed in,” Boll said. “These are the challenges — better than yesterday, not as good as tomorrow.”

Renewed efforts to improve student outcomes at Perry began to take shape in 2018, when a partnership formed between the Buhl Foundation, named for North Side native Henry Buhl Jr., and the school’s staff.

With much of its work focused on the North Side, the Buhl Foundation has since funneled more than $650,000 to the school through the nonprofit A+ Schools, which is working to transform Perry’s culture through community partnerships and an eye on student attendance.

Much of A+ Schools’ work is focused on improving student attendance by addressing common barriers that keep kids from getting to school, such as a lack of transportation. The nonprofit organization is working with social workers at the school to track and provide attendance incentives, and Everyday Labs to call families of students at risk of chronic absenteeism.

“You have to give students a reason to want to come to school,” said Amie White, A+ Schools’ chief of programs. “And so that's where building up these partnerships and these projects — we took that kind of a step one, but always knowing that the goal was tracking attendance better and seeing that impact there.”

A teacher talks to a student at a desk.
Stephanie Strasburg
Kelly Jackson, left, a student teacher with the University of Pittsburgh, talks with student Asia Hart, 17, of Wilkinsburg, during an AP biology class at Perry Traditional Academy, Thursday, April 18, 2024, at the school in Perry North. Hart chose to come to Perry for their STEAM program.

Validating what students learn through community partnerships

With philanthropic support, the school and its partners have introduced and sustained programming designed to bring more students into the classroom. That includes a new science and technology-driven STEAM magnet program, the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps magnet offering, and the school’s culinary and cosmetology programs.

Daz’jnae McFarland, a junior, came to the school’s cosmetology program excited to build her skills and earn her license by the time she graduates. She already knew how to create elaborate nail designs, apply lash extensions and style hair before she enrolled.

“But it still enhances my skills,” McFarland said. “I feel like a lot of people in cosmetology already knew how to do stuff outside. And we get our cosmetology license, so we can do everything.”

Perry alumni who now own salons have come in to work with the school’s cosmetology students. The lab, which opened in February 2022, offers discounted services to the community ranging from haircuts and coloring to manicures and facials.

When she’s not in the school’s state-of-the-art salon, McFarland is taking advanced chemistry and African American literature through the CHS program. Even though she said chemistry has been challenging, McFarland has maintained a 4.0 GPA.

A student works on mannequin heads.
Stephanie Strasburg
Ron’jae Fondree, 16, of Troy Hill, works on perfecting box braids during a cosmetology class at Perry Traditional Academy, Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Perry North.

High-achieving students at Perry are eligible to participate in the Justice Scholars Institute [JSI], a pilot program by the University of Pittsburgh aimed at improving college access for students at the district’s predominantly Black high schools.

Of the three schools participating — Perry, Westinghouse Academy and UPrep Milliones — Perry’s program is the most recent. Esohe Osai, JSI’s director, said courses offered through Pitt are meant to ensure students have the tools they need to pursue careers relevant to the region.

Of the 109 students participating across the three schools this year, 38 are from Perry.

“We're in a city that's eds and meds and tech, so how do we not expect that there are students who live in the city who could also thrive in those careers?” Osai said. “And if they're not getting the type of science [and] math education in their high schools in the basic level courses that are going to help them to thrive in those careers, then we want to make sure that we’re addressing that need.”

A handwritten note.
Stephanie Strasburg
“I am proud of myself I am strong I am enough.” Student affirmations hang on the lockers at Perry Traditional Academy, Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Perry North.

Overall student achievement, however, has remained low in the school. In the 2022-23 school year, 23% of students at Perry tested proficient in English on state assessment exams. Student proficiency in math and science was even lower, at 15% and 10%, respectively.

In recent years, the school moved to block scheduling, an approach typically used in elementary schools where students have fewer but longer classes. O’Malley-Argueta said that is intended to help students hone a particular skill and hit growth and proficiency benchmarks. The school also prioritizes professional development opportunities to help teachers make learning relevant and fun.

In science teacher Vicki Ammer’s classroom, that looks like increasing the number of lab-based lessons her students can access. Ammer said when she joined Perry eight years ago, most of her lessons were paper-based, but in the past few years, with the support of partners like Pitt, the school has been able to purchase new equipment, including a pair of microscopes worth several thousand dollars.

“By bringing in the outside partners, by making the connections, by making it engaging, by doing the cross-connections — all that makes it important. It validates what they're learning,” Ammer said.

Students stand around a large school.
Stephanie Strasburg
People leave Perry Traditional Academy at the end of the school day, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Perry North. Perry is Pittsburgh Public Schools’ only North Side high school, though more than three-quarters of the neighborhood’s students have been drawn away to private schools, charters and specialized magnet programs in other parts of the city.

Attendance, student conflict remain challenges

Students can benefit from these changes only if they make it to school each day. As of late April, 72.3% of Perry students were chronically absent, according to the district’s attendance dashboard.

Principal O’Malley-Argueta said she previously worked with A+ Schools and Urban Impact to contact parents whose students aren’t at school by 9 a.m. — not to blame them for their student’s absence, but to strategize ways to get the student to school each day.

“It shows that we care,” she said. “And I want the community and I want our parents to really feel that they're part of our community and that we care about their child's education.”

Teachers at the school say it also helps that O’Malley-Argueta has been at Perry for about two years, having come to the school in the 2022-2023 school year following a period of high turnover. O’Malley-Argueta is one of four different principals to lead the school between 2018 and 2023, according to A+ Schools.

Research from the Brookings Institute shows principal turnover is associated with lower test scores, lower schoolwide proficiency rates and declines in teacher retention. The organization also found higher turnover rates are more common at high-poverty and racially diverse schools.

“And so now we have a leader who's been here two years and hopefully a lot longer than that who's willing to ride sort of the ups and the downs,” said Boll, the English teacher. “I think that's a huge recent turning point.”

O’Malley-Argueta, a North Side native, previously served as a principal at Allegheny Traditional Academy, a K-8 school located nearby. She said she’s hopeful her reputation will draw more families to Perry, although that also requires addressing the school’s reputation within the greater Pittsburgh community.

Four students at a desk.
Stephanie Strasburg
From left, Perry Traditional Academy students Josey Cooley, 16, of Perry North, Silas Sawyer, 15, of Manchester, Connie Howard, 15, of Brighton Heights, and Mahlae Pollard, 16, of Perry North, laugh during drama club rehearsal after school, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Perry North. Cooley is directing the club’s spring play, a zombie comedy that the students chose to produce.

Adevion Cooper, another member of the school’s drama club, was one of several students who said they had initially avoided Perry due to fears about safety before transferring there.

“Before I went to Perry, I was in a private school, and my one thought throughout everything was, ‘Well, although this school is really not for me and it doesn't really make me feel comfortable, at least it's not Perry,’” said Cooper, a junior. “Because I would hear so many bad things about Perry, this and this and that.”

According to the most recent state data, Perry ranks first in the state in disciplinary incidents per 100 students and ranks fifth in out-of-school suspensions. The vast majority of incidents, however, stemmed from property-related infractions rather than violence or illicit substances.

Students like Cooper said the school’s growing opportunities overshadow what many members of the school community call overblown accusations about conflict.

“I don't think I've been more comfortable in a school, period,” he added. “And I feel like not enough people really can understand how much good things are going on here.”

O’Malley-Argueta said students must learn how to better manage and process their emotions. That way, they don’t end up in fights.

“I feel like all the mediations that we do when we look at why kids are in conflict, it really does boil down that their feelings got hurt and they need to have solutions and better ways to handle what happens when their feelings are hurt,” O’Malley-Argueta said. “It may sound simple, but sometimes the solutions are simple. We just have to figure out how to get there.”

In 2021, the Safe Passages pilot program was launched at Perry. Run by Operation Better Block, the program brings in community leaders to mediate conflict resolution and mentor students.

The Buhl Foundation funded $75,000 to the Safe Passages program in its first year. Last June, Pittsburgh City Council voted to channel another $2.1 million to expand the program at Perry and four other schools with funding from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

A security officer at a desk in the background of lockers.
Stephanie Strasburg
Robin Cummings, a security officer at Perry Traditional Academy, greets students as they move between classrooms, Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Perry North. Cunnings sits among the student affirmations taped to the lockers behind her, and greets students by name as they pass.

According to Perry’s longtime social worker Pheone Tolliver, students paid to serve as “safety ambassadors” are guided by local mentors and school staff, but she emphasized the program is largely student-led.

“It makes sense to have them be a part of the planning and the implementing,” said Tolliver, who has worked at the school for close to two decades. “That really stands out from some of the previous efforts that were happening in the school.”

Still, some students maintain that the school could do a better job of creating a safer environment. Ace Nuttal, a sophomore at Perry, said fights often break out in the building, and they want to see the adults on the scene assert more control over students who create disruptions.

But Nuttal added that time spent with their classmates in the school’s new marching band is a welcome reprieve.

“Everybody here’s friends, everybody here knows each other,” they said.

For now, the school is focused on creating as many choices and opportunities for its students as possible.

“I think for the community, we want to just change the reputation,” said O’Malley-Argueta. “So we want the community to come into the school and see that, although we still have a ways to go, we are moving forward.”

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at

Jillian Forstadt is the education reporter at 90.5 WESA. She can be reached at

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Marlene.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.