Students in Pittsburgh’s hilltop neighborhoods will go back to school in a fully renovated building next week.
The 78,000-square-foot property that housed the former Philip Murray Elementary in Mount Oliver is now home to the newly-upgraded Arlington Elementary.
In the school’s old location, a half-mile away from the new one, its students were housed in two buildings that had fallen into disrepair, Arlington K-8 Principal Holly Ballard said.
The school had no auditorium and one small gymnasium, Ballard said, so it was difficult to address all 424 students at once. The new space will help restore a sense of community, she said.
“Two big spaces where I can have a whole group of kids and be able to talk to them,” she said. “You know, ‘Good morning,’ and start the day off right and have some positive shoutouts. And I always call teachers out and say, ‘Give me something positive from yesterday.’”
The old Arlington building was built to serve a lesser number of students in kindergarten through fifth grade, Ballard said.
“Everything from the bathrooms to the gymnasium (needed work)," she said. "Like not being able to use it for games because the basketball hoops were not regulation height. There was nowhere where you could have an assembly of any kind.”
District Chief Operating Officer Ron Joseph said the former Arlington building would have needed elevators, bathroom updates, roof replacement, masonry work, new windows, new flooring, paving, electrical systems, lighting systems and air conditioning; and would have used up about three years and at least $1 million more than the $13.7 million Murray overhaul.
Design for the Murray redevelopment began in October 2015, demolition the following December.
Upgrades included a renovated gymnasium and auditorium. Classrooms are also equipped with smart boards and sound systems to amplify teachers' voices, Joseph said.
“We know everyone likes to say, ‘Use your teacher voice,’ but having a projected voice for extended periods of time can be kind of exhausting,” he said. “This helps when if students can hear better, they can learn better.”
District officials closed the Murray building before the start of the 2012-13 school year citing declining enrollment. The space has room for 250 students more than Arlington's projected enrollment.
Ballard said a few new students have already registered, most returning from magnets or charters.
“I think we went from the most underserved to probably having one of the best facilities in Pittsburgh Public,” she said.
The former Arlington is now one of many unused buildings owned by the district. The district has closed seven schools in the past five years. Nine former school buildings are currently vacant.
Joseph said the district has been active in selling those unused buildings. The Arlington campus has already been appraised and sale prices are being discussed.
“We also want to be mindful to work with the community and community groups as well to make sure any type of potential reuse would be fitting with the community’s vision of use for that building,” he said.
The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority is also vying for a state grant to purchase several of the district’s vacant buildings.