Trade Deficit | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Trade Deficit

South Vo-Tech High School students prepare for it to close, while city schools struggle to improve career development programs

Black veils of diesel smoke trail the buses as they pull up at 10th and Carson outside South Vo-Tech High School. On the sidewalk, bits of grit and paint teeter on Robert Hongenecker's eyelashes, although longish strands of dark-blond hair might yet sweep them out.


"Can't you see how dirty he is?" teases Sabrina Stockdale, a petite fellow senior from the South Side whose own eyes are more deliberately shaded. Both are auto-body students at South Vo-Tech. A magnet program with students from all over the city, South is one of 15 schools that may close. Pittsburgh Public Schools has a 50,000-student capacity but only 34,000 students. South is the only high school on the district's cut list, because it's both due for expensive renovations and, with just 340 students, it's a half to a third smaller than the district's other high schools (apart from CAPA, the city's arts high school).


In the midst of Hongenecker's career at South, he moved from Mount Washington to Sheraden and decided to spend some time at Langley High School, which has a larger student body with broader course offerings and was much closer to home. "It was kinda strict," he says. "You have more freedom here. I was able to bring in my own truck to work on."


"South seemed like it's different from other schools," says Josh Vogel, a freshman from Mount Oliver, nearly breathless from roughhousing by the bus stop. "Most of my friends went to Carrick and Brashear [High Schools]."


After school, Vogel rides the 51C up to hang out with his neighborhood friends around Carrick, where he claims there's more disputes among students, "just because of neighborhoods and stuff. It's easy to get along with people here" at South. "It's easy to relax in. There's no fights. Like maybe two this year."


Most parents' who were critical at public hearings for the proposed consolidation plan extolled the virtues of neighborhood schools. But South's situation is more complicated: Even as these students decry inter-neighborhood fights, all are from different neighborhoods and get along great. South has solidarity: It's the Republic of Shop Kids.


"I chose this school because I wanted to try welding and auto body, and you gotta be serious to do that," Vogel says.


For Vogel, South's closing would mean switching schools after just a year, and he likes it here. As a freshman, he's completing the school's first "exploratory" year, in which students rotate through classes in several vocations before choosing their focus. South's students take regular academic classes and vocational training, an arrangement that teachers say helps connect math and calculating pipe fittings, or English and deciphering complicated machine manuals. Vogel is part of an extra-large freshman class, many recruited last year by South's parent-teacher organization. Next year's freshman class was to be even bigger -- 156, compared to 76 current seniors.


Although Brashear High School in Beechview also offers auto-body classes -- along with a new auto mechanics program -- South is the only city school that offers four traditional trades: welding, plumbing, commercial art and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning).


For an entire month after the March 4 consolidation plan announcement, any details beyond the vague threat of closing were unknown to South staff, parents and students. On April 1, career development head Johnson Martin announced the district's latest proposal for South:

? The main South building will close, but a newer one across the street -- sometimes called South Annex -- will continue to offer classes in auto body, welding, plumbing, commercial art and HVAC. Reinstalling this equipment elsewhere would be difficult and expensive, Martin said.

? Students in vocational programs in the main building -- business, cosmetology, health careers and culinary -- will relocate to other district schools already offering those programs.

? Students pursuing one of the South Annex vocations would take academic classes at the high school nearest South, Brashear, and be bused to the Annex in the afternoon, unless they chose to attend the high school nearest their homes each morning.


It's not the gas bill that's hurting South, but the cost of overdue renovations. Built in 1897, it's the city's oldest high school. Among its structural problems, says the district's Chief Operating Officer Rick Fellers, are "old double-hung windows [that] are almost a safety hazard," an old furnace that's due to be replaced and a wiring system that's not up to modern standards -- "the classrooms have maybe two outlets in them," Fellers says.


Fully updating South, he says, would cost $40 million -- about the same as building the new Creative and Performing Arts High School Downtown. Even short-term repairs would cost $5-6 million.


Counters PTO parent Donna Eiben, "My husband went to South, and he says it's in better shape now than when he went there."


South's Carson Street location and historic landmark status make it one of the school district's few valuable pieces of real estate. Fellers won't say how much it's worth -- "that'd be like saying what we'd be willing to sell for."


South isn't the only school property that may attract real-estate speculators. The Connelley/Letsche building in the Lower Hill, also slated to close, has been mentioned as part of a possible new Penguins arena site.


South's enrollment has been declining over the years -- partly due perhaps to intermittent talk of its closing. Though the world still needs plumbers and welders, "kids just aren't interested in that anymore," Johnson Martin laments.


"Plumbing [enrollment] has diminished," Martin says. "The plumbing organizations are concerned. We live in a society that allows kids to believe they can be wealthy overnight, not 'this is a respectable occupation, and you have to work to learn it.' You can't let teachers or counselors play it down."


Even among South kids waiting for the bus, the plumbing students are teased for "playing with shit." That's expensive shit: According to the federal Occupational Outlook handbook, plumbers are among the highest paid of the "construction occupations" and their job prospects are "excellent" because too few train to enter the field.


For at least a year, the district has discussed building a state-of-the-art vocational and career high school between the Hill and Oakland. Fellers says they've agreed on a price but are awaiting government approval.


"It may not be absolutely propitious to start talking about a new and expensive tech school," Martin says. "We need it, but the public may not see that. They just see neighborhood schools closing."


Martin announced a new concept for Langley High School in Sheraden recently: Langley Careers West. The plan would create six small career-oriented "academies" of 100-200 students each in teaching, health careers, horticulture, advanced manufacturing, public safety and a "lyceum academy" with classical academic courses.


"We need a couple of model high schools because we're way behind other cities in this," Martin says. Even though South's likely fate is an interim alternative to building a new career center (as is enhancing the career programming at Langley), Martin says he's as enthusiastic as ever: "This is the 'forgotten middle,'" he says -- kids who attract attention from neither college recruiters nor social workers -- "and they're really the backbone of our nation."

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