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High School Partners With University Archives to Teach Local History, Give College Credit

Glimpses of the past — a historic map, a rare photo, an antique tool — offer inspiration for the future to a group of juniors from Pittsburgh Westinghouse Academy 6-12.

Eleven students visited the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives Service Center as part of a new collaboration focusing on the study of hyperlocal history — while earning college credit and gaining experience with University-level resources.

The archive center, located on Thomas Boulevard, sits just outside of Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood where the Westinghouse high school is located. On Jan. 25, Westinghouse U.S. history teacher Sean Means brought students from his course to the facility. Students wandered through a temperature-controlled warehouse stacked with boxes of paper documents. They placed rare photographs in custom sleeves for preservation — including photos of renowned jazz pianist and Westinghouse alumnus Erroll Garner. They also studied historic maps of Homewood going back as far as 1872.

While items such as an antique book-binding vice and a book made entirely of glass were designed to highlight the variety of items being stored in the archives, the maps and street view photos allowed students to make direct connections between the past and their current experiences.

“The maps showed me how much of a change there was from what I’m living now to what my mom and my grandma were living,” said student Zion Benjamin. “Westinghouse was way different than what it is now. There was even a river that dried up behind the school.”

In 2017, a student expressed a desire for history coursework that would lead to college credit, something that wasn't offered at Westinghouse. Means, looking to create a more challenging study opportunity for his students, reached out to the Pitt-Assisted Communities and Schools program, which is housed in the School of Social Work and uses Pitt resources to support schools and institutions in Homewood.

“This allows the students the experience to have a more rigorous class than they would have had otherwise,” Means explained.

After brainstorming with the program's director, Esohe Osai, the two worked to establish a history lab through Pitt’s College in High School program. Founded in 1980, the program enables students in more than 130 high schools to earn Pitt credits.

Means’ U.S. History class is the second College in High School course for Westinghouse — last year’s Introduction to Social Justice course granted 13 students college credit, said Osai.

The typical person doesn’t feel like they can wrap their mind around history. If it’s more visual, I think that will help.

Westinghouse High School student Joel’Lisa White

After working with partners at Pitt, Chatham University and the Westinghouse Alumni Group to establish a syllabus for the class, Means gave students an early taste of the college life. They use college level textbooks, take advanced exams and are tasked with visiting the archives on their own time to find materials to supplement their final projects, which involve interviewing Westinghouse alumni and writing a five-page paper about the history of Homewood.

The extra responsibilities also come with perks. As College in High School program students, they now have credentials allowing them to access online content licensed by the University Library System, the digital archives and any other Pitt materials they might need throughout the course.

“They’re excited about it. For a few of them it’s the first time they have a chance to get college credit,” said Means. “A few students are already taking courses at CCAC (Community College of Allegheny County), so it’s getting them into the mindset of ‘how do I get myself more prepared to make that transition to the next level of education?’”

The maps and images resonated with students after the trip. Means said a later classroom discussion surrounding a picture of bustling businessmen and heavy traffic on Homewood Avenue focused on differences between the business district of the past and today.

“It will be a big help for our project and to help people understand what it was like back then,” said student Joel’Lisa White. “The typical person doesn’t feel like they can wrap their mind around history. If it’s more visual, I think that will help.”

Beyond the project, Means said the visit to the archives and the course itself are having the exact impact he hoped.

“If students see how everyone was involved, see how Homewood was a bustling metropolis, maybe they’ll want to do more things in the neighborhood,” he said.