Penn Hills Class of 1969 tours new high school
A wide-eyed Lynn Staymates spun around, searching for direction at a hallway intersection inside Penn Hills High School. She asked if the nearest stairwell was where she started the tour about an hour beforehand.
The tour guide, a senior student council treasurer, replied, pointing: “No. We started on that side.”
“Well. I’m all turned around,” she said, laughing with her small group of classmates from the Class of 1969.
Staymates, of northern Virginia, was one of around 40 alumni who visited her alma mater recently for a 50-year reunion. But the school looks and feels different than it did in the late 1960s. For one — it didn’t exist.
The Class of 1969 graduated from the old, three-story building that now serves as parking spots for today’s students. For some, the walk from the parking lot, down the stairs and into the new building’s front doors was an emotional experience.
“This is my first time back since I graduated,” said Faith (Westerfield) Thomas of Johnstown. She said she was struck by the building’s massive presence, its shape and the amount of natural light filling the halls and atriums.
“It’s nice to know … the school is still excelling academically,” Thomas said, having just returned from touring the school’s technology, mathematics and science wings.
“But the library … it’s smaller than I expected,” she said.
She wasn’t the only alum who noticed.
Janet (Waller) Zehner of Titusville said her high school’s library was “huge,” and it had three full-time librarians. “But I guess (students) get a lot of their information from computers now,” Zehner said.
Actually, she said, the amount of technology present in the classrooms impressed her the most. Gone are the days of the screeching chalk.
Another difference was the school’s lack of foreign language offerings. Today, the school offers German and Spanish courses.
When George Cherok of Plum was a student, his choices were German, Spanish, French, Russian and Latin. He chose the latter.
“It’s the foundation of all languages,” he said.
Until last year, the school offered French. It was cut — along with other programs and several teachers and staff — as part of the district’s strategy to fight its way out of what has become infamous debt.
The tour gave the former students a chance to walk through the building described in an Allegheny County grand jury report as the result of reckless spending on “extravagant designs and fixtures.” The report was published in February after a three-year investigation led by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala.
The school district is strapped with around $172 million, which is largely due to the construction of a brand new high school and elementary school. The situation has been described as a “catastrophe” that promises an uncertain future for students, teachers, staff and Penn Hills taxpayers.
But the towering shadow of debt dimming the school district’s future wasn’t the focus of the hour-long tour — “not today” — said Sherry Shadrach, a reunion coordinator.
‘Get back up’
“There’s a lot of great things happening in these classrooms. I think people just like to focus on the negative. It’s easier,” she said.
Jacqueline Price, a reunion coordinator who now lives in Southern California, said she left the tour feeling optimistic for the school’s future.
“In the end, what matters most is what takes place each and every day between the students and the adults entrusted to educate them,” she said. “I have no doubt that the dedicated professionals and support staff there will continue their commitment to excellence despite any challenges put before them today or in the future.”
As they made their way through the main entrance’s security post, the alumni were met with what resembled a pep rally in the hallway leading to the school’s auditorium.
They were greeted with familiar cheers led by the varsity cheer squad, each member adorned as if on the playing field. And a uniform “swish” of ruffling pom-poms failed to buffer the thunderous melodies coming from the marching band’s instruments as the awestruck alumni made their way into the auditorium.
Superintendent Nancy Hines, who began her career in the district 24 years ago as a substitute teacher, briefly addressed the alumni group after the school’s celebratory greeting. As an administrator, she said, she’s often criticized for her “robot” qualities.
“But that made me teary,” Hines said, pointing to the hallway of cheerleaders and marching band members.
Visibly moved, Hines took a moment to welcome the reminiscent alumni with words that could only resonate in the hearts of those who belong to the Penn Hills School District community.
“There is a charm here that is unmatched,” she said.
High school Principal Eric Kostic welcomed the alumni by talking about his background. Kostic was the new high school’s first principal, having started his post in November 2011.
He touched briefly on the transition from the old building to the new, and how staff and students worked through those logistics.
Both administrators took the opportunity to highlight the good of their school, instead of rehashing the district’s tumultuous times.
Before splitting the alums into smaller groups that would be led by a student council member on a tour of the building, Kostic reminded the 50-year alums of an age-old lesson:
“We have struggles sometimes — but we have to get back up and keep going.”
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter .