Jake Oresick’s new book, The Schenley Experiment (Pennsylvania State University Press, $19.95), comes out months before the storied high school it chronicles is set to reopen — as 180 luxury apartments. The coincidental timing ironically emphasizes the Oakland institution’s status as both a beloved alma mater and a locus of social change.
Schenley High School, its landmark triangular limestone building built in 1916, was the renamed Pittsburgh Central High School, the city’s first public high school. Graduates include Andy Warhol, jazz legend Earl “Fatha” Hines, Broadway star Vivian Reed and famed black law professor Derrick Bell. It was a pioneering site for racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity and — although this quality waxed and waned — for academic excellence too.
Oresick, an attorney and public-policy analyst, graduated from Schenley in 2001, when the school was both highly diverse and highly desirable. (Schoolmates included Jesse Andrews, whose novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was set at a fictionalized Schenley, where part of the 2015 film version was shot.) Oresick, a student in one of the school’s successful magnet programs, remains proud of Schenley’s legacy of diversity; indeed, he can still view Schenley from the window of his home.
The 210-page book is Oresick’s first. Research materials included press accounts, school records and more than 350 interviews he conducted with former Schenley students and faculty; it’s thoroughly footnoted, appendices dense with data from Schenley’s illustrious sporting history.
While school desegregation, busing and racial strife loomed, Oresick says he had trouble finding negative stories about Schenley. It was, after all, the school where in 1924, white students organized to cheer on a black classmate at oratorical competitions. But it’s also a school that had no black teachers until the 1950s, and Oresick strives to represent that history accurately.
Likewise Schenley’s controversial demise: In 2008, the school district shuttered the building because asbestos contamination supposedly made renovations too costly. While Oresick presents the controversy evenhandedly, he believes that information that’s come out in recent years proves Schenley could have been renovated affordably. “Ending Schenley cost more money than saving it,” he says.
At a May 8 event, Oresick moderates a panel discussion featuring longtime Schenley educators Carol Dyas, Fred Lucas and Carol Sperandeo, and John Young, the school’s principal from 1979-1991.