Friday, November 23, 2007

Schenley: It's Time to Renew It

They don't make them like they used to.

Ninety one years ago, the city made a huge, eye-popping investment in this school called Schenley. Schenley was to be a wonder of classical liberal education, broad in scope, ambitious in its public mission. It was to be a source of pride, glory, and strength for the City.

It has been, and continues to be, all those things.

Schenley continues to produce. Public schools are getting squeezed nationwide, yet in Pittsburgh, the Schenley students continue to perform near the top of the pack.

This is to say nothing of the regularity with which the school produces notable alumni, illustrious even. This is to say nothing of the so many somewhat-lesser success stories throughout the city -- in communities that need more success stories.

There are problems with Schenley and there are problems with all public schools, but Schenley was distinguishing itself.


Asbestos had been an on-and-off concern in recent years. New air-tight windows were installed in 2004. The summer of 2007 was particularly heated (blame global warming).

Under increased pressure and temperatures, the plaster started to burst, and the asbestos was exposed.


The School Board had directed Superintendent Roosevelt to close schools and to get our finances in order.

He had already begun a program closing hundreds of schools and eliminating a ton of excess capacity -- this was all the "low-hanging fruit." The truly tough decisions were yet to come.

A plan for further closures was fashioned and generally approved by the Board -- as was a plan to introduce more specialty, or "theme" schools, geared toward a certain occupation. These would be introduced slowly, since opening new schools is harder than closing them.


When Schenley started to peel apart, any reasonable outsider would see an opportunity not only to economize, but to free up some space and tackle some tough logistical issues. The plan was altered, and the plan continued to make sense...

... to anybody not from Pittsburgh.

The School Board is responsible for providing strategic direction to Roosevelt, and the School Board should continue to support him. The School Board should direct Roosevelt to continue with his plans as agreed upon previously -- and to save Schenley.


Part of the Roosevelt Plan is the introduction of these "theme" schools -- like the arts school, CAPA, or the anticipated Science and Technology school. More of these designer schools are rumored to be in the pipeline.

These schools are a good idea, but there is something to be said for classical education.

There is something to be said for the physicists hanging out with the poets. There is something to be said for having history students in science class. There is something to be said for all of them taking physical education together.

Even more striking, and the best part about Schenley: there is something to be said for the blacks going to school with the whites, for the poor going to school with the rich, and for those with strong families going to school with those that struggle at home.

This is the spirit that has kept Schenley strong for almost a century, and they know it. Thanks to their classical education, they can tell you all about it, too.

Schenley deserves reinvestment. Ninety one years is a long time. Schenley deserves a $100 million bond issue and a massive fix-up -- and its students deserve some improvements and innovations geared to increase performance.

Schenley deserves to be one of the brightest jewels in the Roosevelt Plan: the model school for Classical and Diverse Education.


There are some spill-over issues to this project.

Number one is where to put the Sci-Tech school. We understand this was one of the dominoes that was to fall into place in the amended, ad-hoc Close Schenley plan.

Might we suggest Westinghouse? We understand that it has fantastic laboratory facilities, and it's also ... well, are you familiar with George Westinghouse? How much more perfect can you get?

Number two is the whole grade range issue. Sixth through twelve? Not a popular idea, in this age of MTV and BET. But not wholly without merit.

We suggest possibly a combination until we gather more data. We would imagine, perhaps, that the Sci-Tech schools would have some advantages running as 6-12, where as the Classics & Diversity schools would thrive on children taking longer to explore their calling.

Number three is finances. Another priority the board properly mandated for Roosevelt was to get our finances in order. Taking out a $100 million bond would certainly seem to run counter to that plan -- to anybody but a Pittsburgher.

Schenley is just that big a deal. We have tightened up our game around the edges since Roosevelt came aboard, and we can continue to tighten up elsewhere. Instruct Roosevelt that this bond is a worthy exception.

When the new and improved Schenley School of classical education and diversity gets off the ground, it can even serve as a model for other schools in this tradition. As the specialty, career-track schools demanded by our economy flourish, so too should quality schools for all subjects, and all students, together. The renewed Schenley will again be an example and an inspiration.


  1. Thanks for the logical advocate positions.

    The "designer schools" should include the building of a Science & Tech school at Westinghouse. We agree.

    The $100-M price tag, however, is something to ponder and investigate. The price does NOT need to be so great, I predict.

  2. Does anyone agree that in order for Schenley to remain open as a high school the full amount of removing asbestos and restoration must come from a source other than the school district coffers? Does anyone agree that the district cannot continue to wait for money to become available and pay for bandaids and air quality checks? Does EVERYONE agree that the programs should be moved intact to another location? Furthermore, has everyone been paying attention? Have we overextended ourselves implementing new programs? A quick check of the high school websites shows a wide disparity in the information available. Allderdice has a daily bulletin up to date. Schenley had been doing well until October 19th keeping up to date. Most other high schools have not gotten to the point of being able to put a daily bulletin on their sites. Several middle schools have been making great strides in developing the websites this year. Are the other buildings so taxed? Probably. This is not a criticism. It is almost like institutional ADD. We are getting too scattered.

  3. As to the necessity of REMOVING asbestos, I'm not entirely convinced of its necessity or advisability. I read an EPA report on asbestos in schools which seems to suggest vigilant maintenance is usually preferable to outright removal, so long as it's not done seriously on-the-cheap.

    I realize this is counter-intuitive. Thanks to a wave of scandals and lawsuits in the early 80's, we are conditioned to regard asbestos as radioactive, or some kind of poison. But in reality, although you need to keep your wits about you when dealing with asbestos, it seems fundamentally manageable -- and not in a "so what if one or two kids gets asthma?" sense, but in a reliable, peace-of-mind sense.

    As to the websites -- I don't know the utility of daily bulletins, but I'm not a parent. I can see how the issue might be symptomatic of "institutional ADD" -- which by the way is extremely common in government. That's why I'm not sure the public schools "have overextended themselves"; when you get down to it, the fundamentals are never anybody's strong suit.

  4. Folks are meeting at 3pm in front of the Squirrel Hill Library Monday to do a lit drop in Sq. Hill. Its time to spread the word that this is a bigger issue involving the entire Pittsburgh Public School system

    Also there will be a rally in front of the board of ed on Tuesday at 5pm before the hearing. (I'm number 68 to speak and I hear there are nearly 100 signed up to speak!)

    Anyone who wants to get involved or wants to get a petition can email me at

  5. thanks so much - you said it all.