Graduation at Wilkinsburg High School this year was a little more sentimental and bittersweet than in the past. The 2016 seniors were the final group to graduate from the school, as the district prepares to merge its students with Pittsburgh Westinghouse in Homewood.
Steven West-Hill and Stephon Byrd were two of the 25 seniors who received their diploma last week.
West-Hill plans to attend Manchester Bidwell Corporation to study horticulture technology, and Byrd, former captain of the Wilkinsburg football team, will be attending Alabama State.
They both agree that emotions ran high at this year’s graduation and Prom ceremonies.
“It was the end of Tiger Tradition. That’s what Wilkinsburg is,” said Byrd. “Tiger Pride is everything to me.”
Classmates jokingly called him ‘Coach’ for his passionate and consistent wearing of Wilkinsburg Tiger sports gear. He’ll get to keep his jersey, number 6, he remarked.
As the end of the school year approached, students not only experienced the emotional end of an era, but teachers also faced the fearsome task of finding a new job.
“There was some teachers that already packed their bags and their boxes, and some teachers that didn’t even know the school was closing,” said Byrd.
Both students acknowledged that there were teachers who visibly had mentally checked out when they knew the school was closing.
Even as classmates began to transfer and seniors saw their population decline from 50 to 25, West-Hill said he never considered leaving.
“The history brought me to stay in Wilkinsburg, because we’re the last graduating class, the last prom that will be there. It makes you feel kind of good,” said West-Hill.
While graduation signaled the end of that 106 years of history, Byrd said it was a joyous occasion for the graduates who took full advantage of the celebration by shooting hoops and playing football in the gym while they waited.
Jessica Burns, Wilkinsburg Youth Project Coordinator, pointed out that the students who didn’t graduate will be facing a lot of change.
“How do [monetary] resources translate to support for our youth?” Burns asked, referring to the $3 million allocated to transition costs. “My concern is the safe space that our high school provided, and we’re losing that.”
Burns is most worried about the needs of the youth “in the moment.”
“I want to see people interfacing with these students and making sure their needs are met. Obviously there’s been a history of that not happening because of resource deprivations in Wilkinsburg.”
While Westinghouse is the lowest performing school on standardized tests, the school does have more sports teams and offers more AP classes.
“Anything is going to look better than how these students have been served before,” said Burns.
She emphasized the necessity of building infrastructure and strong educational access for the students of Wilkinsburg, a neighborhood in which many residents live close to or below the poverty line.
“I think there’s something lost in losing [Tiger Pride]. When there’s a collective identity, there can be advocacy,” said Burns. “I’m concerned about that.”
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