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Penn Hebron: Big school but close-knit

| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 3:24 p.m.
Patrick Varine | Penn Hills Progress
Penn Hebron is the largest of the district's neighborhood elementary schools. It was built in 1947 and opened as Penn Junior High School.
Submitted photo
Above, Kelly Hamilton's 1975-76 homeroom from Penn Junior High School.
Submitted photo
Above, an eighth-grade class photo from the 1976-77 school year at Penn Junior High.

Missy Mercurio Haney will never forget her fourth-grade teacher at Penn Hebron Elementary School, Noreen Finlay.

“Mrs. Finlay was warm and welcoming during my first year in this huge school,” said Haney, an Elizabeth resident who grew up in Penn Hills and attended fourth through sixth grade at Penn Hebron, the third Penn Hills School District elementary that will close its doors for good as the district prepares to open the consolidated Penn Hills Elementary School later this summer.

The school was originally built as Penn Junior High in 1947.

In addition to being a former student, Haney also served as a Title I reading specialist at Penn Hebron from 2006 to 2011. She said she will miss the school-wide activities in which students took part.

“We had the tumbling show at Christmas time, field days … just having an opportunity to see them enjoy themselves outside of academics was great,” Haney said.

Kelly Hamilton of Monroeville grew up in Penn Hills and attended the school when it was still Penn Junior High. Both Hamilton and Haney said one of the first things they noticed was the building's size.

“It was the first time I'd ever taken a bus to school, and I'd never been in a school that size,” Hamilton said.

At the time Hamilton was a student, the district had two junior high schools, Penn Hebron and Seneca, the latter of which was built on the current grounds of UPMC's Seneca Hills Village senior community. She recalled the large classes, which over the years have dwindled in number.

“My graduating class was 1,030 (in 1981), and there were probably about 550 kids in seventh and eighth grade,” she said.

Carol Slagle of Monroeville, who graduated from Penn Hills in 1969, also attended Penn Junior when Seneca was still in existence.

“Of course, we all thought Penn Junior was far superior,” she said with a laugh.

Slagle's husband John was the first principal of Penn Hebron, which opened as an elementary school for the 1983-84 year.

It was converted to an elementary because seven months earlier — on John Slagle's birthday, Feb. 2 — the original Hebron Elementary School was destroyed in a fire.

Needing a new location for students, the district converted Penn Junior to Penn Hebron.

Slagle said she is sad to see the school close.

“When I went to Penn Hills schools, there were seven or eight elementary schools, and it was said that the district has just lost so much enrollment. I had 1,100 in my graduating class, and when my sons graduated in '92 and '95, there were about 400 kids in their classes,” she said.

Hamilton said she has mixed feelings about the elementary schools closing.

“When I grew up, there were 13 elementary schools, two junior highs, Linton and the high school,” she said. “There were very neighborhood-centered schools. I like that small, neighborhood kind of feeling.”

Haney said the closures will mark “the end of an era.”

“I've spent so much time there, personally and professionally,” she said. “It's almost like we're moving out of a house.”

Slagle agreed that the neighborhood feel was one of the best aspects of her education growing up.

“It was a nice school,” she said. “It was big, but it was also very close-knit.”

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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