Episode 13: Struggling School, Or Sanctuary?

Aug 17, 2016
Originally published on August 17, 2016 4:08 pm

Kids are headed back to school, and this year, a couple hundred thousand K-12 students will be walking unfamiliar halls because their previous public school closed, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Over the past 15 years, between 1,000 and 2,000 public schools have shut down each year.

Schools close for all kinds of complicated reasons, from demographic changes to the impact of federal laws like No Child Left Behind to sputtering state budgets. There are lots of arguments over who's to blame and whether a school's closure was a good thing or a bad thing.

But here's one simple fact: School closures disproportionately affect black children.

On the Code Switch podcast, we dig into the story of one such school, in Wilkinsburg, Pa., a tiny Pittsburgh suburb where the town's only public joint middle and high school recently closed. Nearly all of Wilkinsburg Jr. and Sr. High's students were black and eligible for free and reduced lunch. The school wasn't meeting state performance standards and had been hemorrhaging students for years.

I traveled to Wilkinsburg earlier this year, along with NPR's Chris Benderev, for a story that originally ran on NPR's Embedded podcast, and which we're also sharing with you here.

We talked to students trying to make sense of the closure, like 15-year-old Tiana Ramsey, who said she thought race might have played a role. "I think it's because we're African Americans, we're black, that's why they're shutting the school down."

We also spoke with parents and teachers who were trying to figure out their next move. Keri Boyer, a teacher who spent 17 years working at the school, turned down a job offer because it meant leaving mid-year. "My heart is here," she told us. "I'll be waiving the white flag at the end of school. I'm going down with the ship."

Benderev and I discovered the unique role this neighborhood school played after five people in Wilkinsburg were murdered at a cookout in what local news outlets have called a mass shooting. One of the women killed was a parent of two Wilkinsburg High students and a popular team mom.

Code Switch wants to do more on the topic of school closures and what's lost when a neighborhood's public schools shut down. My co-host Gene Demby called them "anchors of continuity in the places where we are from" in a piece from last year:

Schools are where young people first learn how to interact with their communities in official and personal capacities, and offer a touchstone to reconnect with way down the line. Our schools are signposts in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our communities. When I was reporting from Ferguson last summer, folks I talked to from all over St. Louis told me that the customary greeting asked of strangers upon the first meeting is, "What high school did you go to?" The answer, they said, carries with it all sorts of local meaning about just who you were and who you knew.

So, we want to hear from you. Have you graduated from a school that no longer exists? Tell us your story. Call 202-836-7703 and leave us a message. Or send us an e-mail: codeswitch@npr.org. We may share it more widely and it could air on an upcoming episode of the podcast.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, y'all? This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TIANA RAMSEY: I think it's because we're African-American, we're black, that they're shutting the school down. So I don't know because it's always been like this for centuries, actually, before I was even born.

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DEMBY: That was Tiana Ramsey who was a student at a school that, as of this summer, no longer exists. And we're going to hear more from Tiana in a minute, but that clip was from an episode of NPR's Embedded podcast, which is hosted by our colleague Kelly McEvers. And on Embedded, she takes a story that's in the news and then goes way beyond the headlines.

MERAJI: Goes deep, as she would say. And I did an Embedded episode based on these headlines.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The city of Detroit today announced plans to close 44 schools, including...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Historic number of school closings in Chicago this week...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Philadelphia is closing 23 schools, Washington, D.C. - 15...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Tonight, the Hinkley middle school district is...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Stillwater school district...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Pulaski County...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Carroll County is hosting...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: People have lost their optimism, and now they're losing their high school.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: The new school the kids would go to will likely get shut down soon as well.

MERAJI: And the reasons why a school goes away can be really complicated. You've got economic reasons. Folks leaving depressed communities take their families where there are more jobs, and if there aren't enough kids, it's really hard to keep local schools open.

DEMBY: Yeah. There's, like, a maze of state and federal policies and state budget pressures that lead to schools being closed. And, you know, it's just a mess. And there are lots of arguments over who's to blame and if all those school closures are even good or bad to begin with. But what we do know is that school closures disproportionately affect black kids in America. And when a school that's been in a neighborhood for decades closes, it really hurts.

MERAJI: And right now, while many students are heading back to their familiar neighborhood school after summer break, the students of Wilkinsburg junior and senior high, they'll be walking unfamiliar halls. Their school shut down this past June after a long period of decline. And I went there with Embedded producer Chris Benderev toward the end to see how students, parents and teachers felt about losing this neighborhood institution.

DEMBY: So in this week's episode of CODE SWITCH, we wanted to revisit Shereen's reporting on the emotional final days of Wilkinsburg High School.

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MERAJI: Wilkinsburg is this tiny suburb right outside of Pittsburgh. There are some really fancy parts, great, big old houses set back from the streets with perfectly manicured yards. But the center of town is a shell of what it used to be - empty storefronts and homes, blight everywhere. And that's where you'll find the one public high school, a brick and stone behemoth built to hold a thousand kids.

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MERAJI: And there's the cliche sound of a metal detector, something you'll hear in a lot of schools where a majority of the students are poor and aren't white.

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UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Want me to take my glasses off?

MERAJI: Every morning, the kids walk through that metal detector. And if it keeps going off, a security guard busts out the wand to check for weapons.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL DETECTOR WAND BEEPING)

MERAJI: What you're hearing right now is that wand finding something metal under a student's shirt. It's her underwire bra.

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MERAJI: All this before the students march up the ornate marble staircases to their classrooms - not a thousand high school students; fewer than 200 middle and high schoolers. And that's important, but I'll get to that in a minute. When we first got in touch with the school, we had permission to talk to whoever, but there has been turnover since then, which we learned happens a lot when a school's closing. People jump ship for new jobs. There have been three principals this year. The plan is to roam the halls and talk to the teachers and students, but the latest principal sends this guy...

MIKE FULMORE: Yes, this is Coach Mike.

MERAJI: ...To shut it down.

FULMORE: Yep, she's going to go over to my office, please...

MERAJI: OK, so we're on our way into a room where kids are going to be brought to us to interview them, so things have changed a little bit from before.

Coach Mike - his real name is Mike Fulmore - was the football coach. But a couple of weeks ago, he got a promotion to dean of students - lots of reshuffling happening on staff these days.

We're about to get locked in an office. At least there's windows.

FULMORE: Right. It's kind of like being at the zoo.

MERAJI: So now I'm stuck in this room with a loud AC unit, and students are being sent to me one by one.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I want you to sit on this side.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All right.

MERAJI: Not ideal, but I do get to ask a bunch of different kids how they feel about their school closing.

OK, what is your first and last name?

TIANA: My name's Tiana Ramsey, and I'm 15.

MERAJI: Take me back to when you first found out that Wilkinsburg High School was closing.

TIANA: I saw on the website that school was closing down, and I'm like, I don't believe that. I don't really believe they're going to close the school down. Where are the kids going to go now, and why are y'all closing the school? But no one could give me an answer for the second question, why are y'all closing it.

MERAJI: Have you pieced together an answer for yourself? Do you think you have an answer?

TIANA: I think it's because we're African-American, we're black, that they're shutting the school down. So I don't know, because it's always been like this for centuries, actually, before I was even born.

MERAJI: Tiana's not the only kid who says this - actually, a handful do. This is happening because we're black. And here's why they might think that. Wilkinsburg, the town, is 30 percent white. But most of those white kids don't go to school here. They're going mostly to Catholic and private schools. And you can count the white kids who do go here on one hand and still have two fingers left.

People on the school board say this is not about race. This school's closing because there aren't enough kids. Less than 200 middle and high school kids go here. Not enough kids means not enough money for honors courses, art classes, not enough money to keep this giant old building up and running. So the board made a deal with the neighboring Pittsburgh school district to have one of its schools take all the students from Wilkinsburg High. They chose Westinghouse, a school in a neighborhood called Homewood.

MARLON RANEY: At first I thought it was good until I found out who we was merging with.

MERAJI: Eighteen-year-old Marlon Raney's (ph) been going to Wilkinsburg since seventh grade. He's graduating this year. Back in the '90s, Homewood and Wilkinsburg were in a gang war. And there's still this sense that the two neighborhoods do not get along and never will.

RANEY: You know, they always been feuding for a while. So I don't know how it's going to work when we make that merge with each other.

MERAJI: I mean, you're done, right? This isn't yours - there's no high stakes for you.

RANEY: I do have a little brother who goes here who's a ninth grader. And I really don't want him going to Westinghouse. I don't know how to put it - like, Wilkinsburg's not helping my little brother, neither is Westinghouse. Like, my little brother, he just gets distracted by, like, the environment he's in.

MERAJI: Fourteen-year-old Journey Ledbetter (ph) says the same thing.

JOURNEY LEDBETTER: We was forced to be in this environment. And environment is a big part of how you act.

MERAJI: Journey doesn't want to go to Westinghouse, either. He wants to go to a better school in a safer part of town. But he says they have no choice about where they're going to go. And the choice that's been made for them is in this other neighborhood that's just as messed up as theirs.

JOURNEY: People dying every day, you know that everybody's losing someone every single day. It really affects kids, and not just kids - everybody, the whole community. We need to stop the gun violence. It's really - man, I don't even know what to say. Gun violence - I lost a lot of friends from gun violence.

MERAJI: I keep talking to the kids until the final bell.

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MERAJI: They tell me they'll figure out how to go to a charter school or they'll live with family in a safer district. A few say they'd be OK at Westinghouse because they have cousins in Homewood who'd watch out for them. And there is gun violence and drug dealing going on, but honestly, at this point, I'm wondering - is this just kids being kids? They love drama, right? Then again, maybe Marlon and Journey are right about their environment and I just don't want to believe it's that bad. We really need to talk to a parent, and that's where producer Chris Benderev comes in.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: Crystal?

CRYSTAL EVERETT: Yes.

BENDEREV: Hi, how are you?

C EVERETT: Hi.

BENDEREV: One night, I drive a couple of minutes from the school, down a street of old row houses, and I meet Crystal Everett (ph). She's 39 and a clerk at the Allegheny County Court for almost 20 years. And she raised three kids as a single mom.

BENDEREV: Dremar, come on down.

DREMAR EVERETT: Already coming, Mom.

BENDEREV: She's calling for her son, Dremar, who's in 11th grade at Wilkinsburg - one more year to go. And the thing you need to know about Dremar is that everyone in this town knows him. He's a football star. He played quarterback this year.

C EVERETT: All I could do is just cheer, be the biggest fan out there and his biggest critic.

BENDEREV: Do you go to his games?

C EVERETT: Every game, home and away...

D EVERETT: Everywhere, home and away...

C EVERETT: I got to be the loudest person.

D EVERETT: You hear her in the stands, screaming - literally.

BENDEREV: Crystal says that when she heard the high school was closing, that was bad news. But then, when she heard that Westinghouse was the new school, she felt just like the kids that we talked to.

C EVERETT: No, not Westinghouse - no, no. I mean, each corner, someone's selling drugs on - each corner. Like, no - he can - no. I cannot see him going to Westinghouse. No. These kids? No.

BENDEREV: Crystal also says that as a parent, and a pretty involved one, she feels like she had no say in all of this. The school board president told us the board sent letters home to parents and put notices on their website about a hearing to take public comment. Crystal was there.

C EVERETT: And I went to the meeting, and they said it wasn't - they weren't sure, but, oh, they were sure. It was, like, final. They had all these slides, shows telling you what it's going to be like. Oh, they were sure. They knew it was happening.

BENDEREV: To her, it felt like it was just the school's closing and now they have to go to Westinghouse.

C EVERETT: Like, this is ridiculous.

BENDEREV: And here's another thing Crystal's mad about - in Pennsylvania and other states, when a kid leaves the neighborhood public school like Wilkinsburg and goes to a charter school, the money assigned to educate that kid leaves with them. This means less money for Wilkinsburg neighborhood schools. Less money means fewer academic resources, and then more kids leave. Crystal says it's a vicious cycle. In Wilkinsburg today, more kids have left for charters than have stayed.

C EVERETT: Your school's closing because half the kids go to charter schools 'cause they ain't got enough students in there. Bullshit - that's how I feel like. That's what I feel like. Their parents want them to go to a better school because they don't like Wilkinsburg school or the city schools. Make them pay for their kids to go to a better school district.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Exactly.

C EVERETT: I'm just - sorry, that's just my point on it. If I felt like I wanted Dremar to go to a better school district, I know I'm going to have to pay for that. That should be in my budget. No child left behind, right? Well, your school's right here. We ain't leaving you behind. Your school's right here. Take these charter schools and combine them into this one big school that has nothing.

BENDEREV: Crystal says she's still not sure what she's going to do Dremar next year. But she says no matter what, she does not want him going to Westinghouse.

C EVERETT: He can live with his sister. He can live with his uncle. He can live with his dad.

BENDEREV: Do they all live in Pittsburgh?

C EVERETT: A few.

D EVERETT: My dad lives in...

C EVERETT: He's moving to Vegas.

D EVERETT: He's moving to Vegas.

BENDEREV: Like, Las Vegas?

C EVERETT: Yes.

D EVERETT: Las Vegas, moving to Las Vegas.

C EVERETT: That's my options. I have a few other options, or I could move.

BENDEREV: Just to be clear - she would rather him move to Las Vegas than go to Westinghouse. And let me just say Crystal is not the only Wilkinsburg parent who's upset. The other parents we talked to said the same things. Dremar says that just sending kids to a new school is not the way to fix the problem of a failing school.

D EVERETT: You know, you can't get after kids, you can't, especially coming out of Wilkinsburg because we're already stacked against the odds already as it is walking down the street to school, walking from school. Don't do that to us, no.

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DEMBY: Coming up, remember what Marlon and Journey said at the beginning of this story about their environment, about the gun violence in Wilkinsburg? Well, something terrible happened not long after they said that. We'll hear more about that after the break. This is CODE SWITCH.

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DEMBY: Thanks for listening to CODE SWITCH. Why not try "Planet Money?" It's a show that explains the economic forces that shape your life. Right now, they're getting into the oil business and actually buying physical crude oil and following it through every step of the way from ground to gas tank to see who actually makes our oil. Find "Planet Money" on NPR One or at npr.org/podcast.

All right, this is CODE SWITCH. And now back to my co-host, Shereen Marisol Meraji, and the story of the closing of a mostly-black middle and high school in Wilkinsburg, Pa.

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MERAJI: Oh, my gosh, I'm still not awake. OK, get it together. It is 5:28 in the morning. I'm in my hotel room in Pittsburgh, and my phone is just ringing and ringing and ringing. And I missed the call, but I saw that there was a message from my editor. And it said are you OK? I just heard about the shooting. So the next thing I did was go online and type in Wilkinsburg and shooting. And this is what I got.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have confirmed through Allegheny County Police that there are four women and a man dead in this shooting. Right now, police do not have information as to what brought perhaps two shooters to this location here in Wilkinsburg. But they...

MERAJI: So supposedly two people went to a backyard barbecue, shot up a bunch of people that were in somebody's backyard on Franklin Street in Wilkinsburg. Five people are dead, and at the moment, they're saying three people have been injured and the shooters are at large. And we were supposed to go to the school at 7:30 in the morning for a meeting with the teachers this morning, and I'm not sure if that's going to happen. I'm not sure if Wilkinsburg is locked down and nobody can get in, how they're going to be dealing with the press.

So that will all remain to be seen, but Wilkinsburg is a really small town. It's, like, 2.3 square miles and 16,000 people, so I'm sure one of the kids that I spoke with yesterday knows one of the people who got shot and killed. So it's going to be a hard day for those kids.

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MERAJI: This is not the story we thought we would be doing in Wilkinsburg, but we still wanted to go. We wanted to be in the school and see how they handle something like this, even if the school is about to close.

So there are kids waiting for the school to open outside. I mean, it actually just seems fairly normal.

It's surprising how quiet the drive to school is - hardly any traffic, no police tape, no checkpoint even though the shooters are still at large. We make it just in time for the 7:30 staff meeting.

SHAWN JOHNSTON: Everyone here? I'm missing Miss Sullivan and I need to get started 'cause I don't know how long they're going to be. Several things on the agenda. Please don't tape this, OK?

MERAJI: Principal Shawn Johnston asked us to stop recording but allows us to stay. She briefs the staff on how to handle the shooting news, says it might be really hard on the middle schoolers. It's been a year since the death of their classmate, 12-year-old Sincere Powell. He died of an overdose, and that anniversary was horrible at school - kids crying, acting out in class. Today, she says, use your best judgment. If they aren't in the mood to learn, don't teach. Turn off the lights. Turn on some music. Help them relax. And there's no word yet on whether any of the students know any of the victims.

(CROSSTALK)

BENDEREV: When we walk out of the staff meeting, kids are in the halls. It's before class. And at the end of this long hall, I see Dremar, Crystal's son, the quarterback. He's talking with a few other kids. I walk up and he leans into my mic.

D EVERETT: Pray for Wilkinsburg, everybody. Please pray for us.

BENDEREV: The kids go back to talking about other things. They ask me questions about my mic. Dremar sips on this big soda that he has. And then a girl walks up and says this...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: What was (unintelligible) what happened to Tanaia's (ph) mom.

D EVERETT: Who?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Tanaia's mom died. Yes.

BENDEREV: The mother of one of the students, whose name's Tanaia, was killed in the shooting.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: You say what?

D EVERETT: You're lying.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: She died?

BENDEREV: The names of the victims are not public yet, but rumors are getting out. Tanaia's mom was a popular football team mom. She had two kids at the school.

D EVERETT: Damn. I feel so bad for them, yo, 'cause their pops is in jail and then her mom died.

BENDEREV: The dad is in prison. One girl asks, so who are the kids going to live with now? Dremar is definitely surprised by all this, but, honestly, he doesn't seem that rattled.

D EVERETT: Yo, math.

BENDEREV: He says he has to go to class, and then he walks off down the hall. But then I see Dremar run into this other kid, another football player. They say something to each other, and then, all of a sudden, the other kid needs to sit down, then Dremar too, right there on the floor.

He's got his hands on his head. He looks pretty upset.

They don't say anything to each other while they sit there. And then, a few seconds later, a security guard named Chris Taylor walks up.

Chris Taylor just came up. He's going to walk him away.

He doesn't say anything either. He just stands them up, puts his arms around them and walks them back into an office. He motions that I should stay back. Eventually, that security guard, Chris, walks back out of that office. His eyes are a little misty.

CHRIS TAYLOR: You know, you can say what you want to say about Wilkinsburg High School, but this is a time that you really need to see how as a staff we get together, all of us - security, lunch ladies, maintenance, counselors, principals, teachers. And now you really get the chance to see and react to how we really are these kids', you know, family to a certain extent.

BENDEREV: Dremar and his friend ended up staying in there, crying, for a couple hours.

KERI BOYER: I didn't think that it was appropriate to keep today business as usual.

MERAJI: Keri Boyer teaches high school English. She opens each period today with some version of this short speech.

BOYER: And I don't know how much you've heard about who and such. But I didn't know if a certain person would be here today that this affected more personally than a lot of other people. So today, I am giving you the opportunity to have just a free write.

MERAJI: Turns out, Ms. Boyer has two of one of the victim's kids in her classes, Taneja and her little brother Brashad (ph), who's in this period. And they're not here today, for obvious reasons. But the kids who did come to class, they seem like they're doing all right. There's not a lot of crying, actually.

BOYER: They've become numb almost because it is such a common occurrence. A few years ago, another colleague of mine who started at the same time as I did - and he's no longer here - but we sat and we counted how many students, from the time we started until the time - at that - I think it was, like, three or four years ago, and we were up to, like, 25.

MERAJI: Twenty-five dead students - and she says it's more like 30 now. All but two died violent deaths. So yeah, this is the kind of thing that starts to feel weirdly normal for a lot of these kids. But during her free periods between classes, they come in to process the news in maybe not so obvious ways. They walk in, ask if she has a snack or something to drink.

ANFERNEE FLEMING: Do you have any more water?

BOYER: (Laughter) I do not have water.

FLEMING: What do you got?

BOYER: But I have a Dr. Pepper, and I have peach tea.

MERAJI: Ms. Boyer has a minifridge near her desk with drinks and fruit in case they're thirsty or hungry and don't have anything at home, which she says happens a lot. Eighteen-year-old Anfernee Fleming wants water. Sixteen-year-old Jaquayla Gilmore just asked for some gum. But they eventually start talking about the shooting.

JAQUAYLA GILMORE: Then that's when my mom started riding around Wilkinsburg, going to other people's houses, like, is my son here? Is my son here? Like, and (unintelligible), I just never want our family to ever experience that.

BOYER: Like - but, you know, I bet you, though, that that fear and that panic will make you do some things you wouldn't do on a normal day, though. You know what I mean? I mean, your mom doesn't always go riding around...

GILMORE: Man, she don't ever...

BOYER: ...Looking for your brother.

GILMORE: But you seen it in her face that she was scared. Like...

FLEMING: Earlier...

GILMORE: She said I'm not going to sleep till I've found out where my son's at.

FLEMING: My dad - first - he's the first one who called me. Then my mom called me, and then my best friend called me I didn't know what happened.

GILMORE: The news keep saying they had a automatic AK. And I'm just thinking, like, it couldn't been an AK 'cause you kept hearing the shots go off. Like, so you know he kept pulling the trigger. It's not...

BOYER: The fact that you even know...

GILMORE: ...No automatic gun.

BOYER: ...That just blew my mind, OK?

FLEMING: Right.

BOYER: But OK.

GILMORE: 'Cause it sounds like first person let their clip go and then a second person let their clip go.

BOYER: Obviously, I know about, like, Brashad and Tanaia's mom and stuff. But were any of the other victims related to anybody...

GILMORE: They ain't dropped the rest of the victims' names. They just gave the ones that died out.

BOYER: Brittany Powell...

FLEMING: Yeah.

BOYER: ...And somebody else.

FLEMING: It was her sister, Sade Powell (ph), I think, or Shadae Powell (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Yeah, Shadae.

FLEMING: And then was Tina and Jerry.

GILMORE: But they said eight people got shot 'cause first, on the news, they said, OK, four people got shot. The next thing you know, five people come up dead. I'm like, yo, they just changed from four people shot there to five people dead to eight people shot. Like - and then they brought the little baby out - like, there was kids in that house. And then one of the girls was pregnant. Basically, it was six people that died, if you're going to be technical.

FLEMING: Yeah, I don't know who - which one it was, but she was pregnant. And she got shot. I said, oh, my God. This is crazy. I got to get out the 'hood 'cause this is too much.

BOYER: I hope you all get out of the 'hood.

GILMORE: My senior year, I'm trying to go to Florida 'cause you could graduate with a trade.

MERAJI: Ms. Boyer says it's like this most days. She's with the kids from the first to the final bell. There's never a real free period, never an actual break. And it's been like this for 17 years.

BOYER: I started here when I was 25 years old. The one thing I've always liked about here is I had these kids in eighth grade, and I got to watch them grow until they graduated. And some of them are now 30 years old. But I still talk to them, and they're still my kids. And they're always going to be. They can be 50 years old and they'll still be one of my kids. And my husband gets so mad at me all the time. He's like can you just leave it there one time? And I'm like I can't.

MERAJI: You know, Ms. Boyer has two kids of her own. She's got bills to pay, mouths to feed. But she turned down a job at Westinghouse because she'd have to leave before Wilkinsburg's last graduation. And she says she just couldn't do it.

BOYER: My heart's here, so why am I going to pick up and leave them without a teacher for three months? So I'm just - I'll be waving the white flag at the last day of school I guess. I'm going down with the ship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Looking back on this day, it's so clear that this school means a lot more than classes and homework and test scores.

BENDEREV: When something like this happens, Wilkinsburg High School is a safe place in what can be a violent neighborhood. There's structure inside this building when outside there's a lot of chaos.

MERAJI: And the kids feel safe in other ways, too, safe to share their sadness and their frustrations with people they've known for years - the librarian, their security guards, their English teacher Miss Boyer.

BOYER: And I don't think we'll ever be able to recreate anywhere else what was here.

BENDEREV: But they're going to have to recreate it somewhere else. They don't have a choice. Most of these kids are going to end up at Westinghouse.

MERAJI: So what about Westinghouse, the place everyone seems so not at all excited about? We check it out for ourselves the next day.

BENDEREV: It's about a 10-minute drive from Wilkinsburg High, and it's close in other ways, too. The neighborhoods surrounding the schools look alike - abandoned homes, overgrown yards. And when you walk in...

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL DETECTOR BUZZING)

MERAJI: There's two sets of metal detectors here.

Metal detectors - and where there are metal detectors, you're more likely to find poor students of color. Westinghouse is a majority black school, just like Wilkinsburg. And the test scores are on par with Wilkinsburg's - low. But from the moment you walk in, this school, the one that everybody's been talking smack about, it seems great. Eighth graders Jaylynn Mclary (ph) and Camille Andrews (ph) give us a tour. You're on student council?

CAMILLE ANDREWS: Yes. I am the president, and Jaylynn, she's the vice president.

MERAJI: OK, so where are we going now?

CAMILLE: So we can get on the elevator.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Camille and Jaylynn take us by the school store.

CAMILLE: It's open during lunch and after school.

JAYLYNN MCLARY: We have Hot Cheetos, Kool-Aid Jammers, Skittles...

MERAJI: Yes, you can snack on Hot Cheetos and rock your Bulldog swag when you root for the home team during a swim meet at the school's indoor pool. No pool at Wilkinsburg - more into cooking than swimming.

CAMILLE: This is the culinary arts room. We have cooking class here. Can we go in and see?

JESS VISHNER: Yeah, come on in.

MERAJI: Mr. Vishner, the culinary arts teacher, invites us in. Inside, a high-schooler named Otis (ph) walks by with a huge metal bowl full of freshly cooked French fries.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Thank you, Otis.

VISHNER: Yeah, so it's a three-year program where our students get everything they need to know how to be an entry-level cook or chef when they go into the business.

MERAJI: Perfectly salted and very crispy.

OTIS: Thank you.

VISHNER: Way to go, Otis.

MERAJI: Really good.

CAMILLE: Thank you, Mr. Vishner.

VISHNER: Of course, any time.

MERAJI: And down the hall, there's more vocational training.

JAYLYNN: When you get in high school, you can apply for, like, what you want to do, like nursing, cosmetology, construction.

CAMILLE: Oh, that's carpentry.

JAYLYNN: Let's go in.

CAMILLE: You can just go in there.

MERAJI: And we finish our tour at the library, where there are lots of brand-new Apple computers and one teenage boy who really, really has to make a poop joke. Yes, some things are the same at every school.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: She's making us dissect poop. Who does that?

CAMILLE: We have an owl pellet...

JAYLYNN: Lab.

CAMILLE: ...Lab that we're doing. And it's regurgitation. It's not poop.

MERAJI: After the tour of Westinghouse, to be honest, we're conflicted.

CAMILLE: OK, any questions?

JAYLYNN: Any questions? Question number one.

MERAJI: We have so many questions. We looked at the limited research that's out there about school closures, and it suggests, for them to work, you've got to send the kids to a much better school. We'll call them A or B schools.

BENDEREV: The Pennsylvania Department of Education grades schools out of 100. And last year, Wilkinsburg High School got a 40; Westinghouse, a 38. Both of those are F-minus schools. So that doesn't seem better for the kids, right?

MERAJI: But Westinghouse does have more up-to-date facilities, more honors classes, vocational training, a day care and a new principal. She goes by Ms. Z. We met her, and her Westinghouse pride is contagious. She has a five-year plan to make the school better academically.

BENDEREV: What about those intangibles, though, the role that the Wilkinsburg staff plays as a surrogate family for the kids, that safe place right there in their own neighborhood? What happens when that's gone?

MERAJI: We don't know the answers to any of these questions, and we probably won't have them for a long time. What we do know is the year is almost over. The school is about to shut its doors forever, so we head back to Wilkinsburg for the last day of school.

BENDEREV: And graduation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: On the last day of school, the first person we look for is the English teacher we met on the day of the shooting, the one with the mini fridge full of drinks.

We are here to follow Miss Boyer.

We find Miss Boyer in the hallway. She just finished up her goodbyes to the staff. Her eyes are bloodshot from crying, and I can tell she's trying to hold it together for our benefit.

Should we go back up to your room or do you not want to be in there ever again?

BOYER: I just turned in my keys, but we can go...

MERAJI: It felt weird after spending so much time in her classroom the day after the shooting not to go back one last time. So I convinced her to see if it's still open, and it is. She took down all the photos of her students she had up on bulletin boards. The mini-fridge is gone, but there are a few things left.

BOYER: I don't know, I figured if I was going to end up somewhere new, I wanted to start fresh. So I left a lot of it here.

MERAJI: The final English assignment's on the chalkboard. The kids had to write their autobiographies. Some motivational posters are still up - seven rules of life, that kind of thing.

BOYER: They always got a kick out of the Garfield one. It says you can't scare me. I teach. And I always wanted to put in Wilkinsburg underneath that. You know, you always pack up certain things and take them home because you don't want anything to happen to them over the summer. But knowing that this time I was packing them up and there wasn't going to be a return in the fall was hard.

MERAJI: Ms. Boyer says after tonight's graduation, she's getting in her car and can't imagine herself ever coming back.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Good evening, and welcome to the Wilkinsburg High School graduation ceremony for the class of 2016.

(APPLAUSE)

BENDEREV: The very last Wilkinsburg High School graduation is in the fancy old auditorium. The graduates are sitting up on stage. There are only 25 of them - 25 graduates. They're surrounded by lots of red and blue Mylar balloons and over-the-top flower arrangements.

MERAJI: Alumni, family and friends are in the theater seats, fanning themselves with the programs. But the kids giving speeches are so great, you forget how hot and stuffy it is.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I would now like to introduce to you the class of 2016 senior class president, Mr. Anfernee Fleming.

MERAJI: That's Anfernee. You met him the day of the shooting in Ms. Boyer's room. Remember, he said he's got to get out the 'hood? He thanks his grandma, his parents and then gives a surprise shout out.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION CEREMONY)

FLEMING: And I got one more thing to say. Ms. Boyer, can you please stand up?

MERAJI: Ms. Boyer comes from the side of the stage toward Anfernee, crying. People in the audience are crying. Shoot, I'm tearing up.

BENDEREV: She gives Anfernee a huge hug.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION CEREMONY)

BOYER: I'm so proud of you.

FLEMING: This lady right here put the whole senior class - pushed us to make sure that we graduate and didn't play around in school. If it wasn't for her, I don't even know where half of us would be at right now because this lady right here, the best lady I ever met. And I'm going to miss her. I'm going to stay in contact with you forever, beaux. Love you (laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

BENDEREV: Finally, the commencement address. The kids got to vote for who they wanted to speak. They were told they could ask for anyone - a pro football player or a big-name politician.

MERAJI: Instead, they wanted a 33-year-old white guy, a former teacher, Jason Boll. He's known most of the graduates since seventh grade and taught here for six years.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION CEREMONY)

JASON BOLL: Believe, class of 2016 - please believe that you shine.

MERAJI: He spoke directly to the grads, his back to the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION CEREMONY)

BOLL: There will be people - there will be a lot of people who do everything that they can to keep you from sitting at the table, to keep you from having power and to keep you from being part of the conversation. My advice to each of you is to push your way in.

(APPLAUSE)

BOLL: I'm not saying be a jerk, but I'm saying get there because we need a whole lot less of 33-year-old white guys who like to talk at that table and a whole lot more of you. See...

MERAJI: And here's the amazing thing - he actually apologizes to the kids for the closing of the school.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION CEREMONY)

BOLL: We adults messed up. We wouldn't be where we're at now in this district if we didn't mess up.

MERAJI: This isn't your fault. It's the adults who put bad policies in place, wasted district money, didn't put you first. No matter what, you are stars. And although your world will be full of darkness, he says, the darker the night, the brighter the stars shine.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION CEREMONY)

BOLL: I can't lie to you, night exists, darkness exists. And it will continue to exist, right? But I've met the stars, and I'm just telling you there's no reason for us to be fearful of the night with stars like this. Peace to you all. Good luck. You know where to reach me, and shine on, folks.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: This concludes the grand finale of the Wilkinsburg Senior High School's graduating class of 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST'S PERFORMANCE OF "POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE MARCH IN D, OP. 39, NO. 1")

MERAJI: Since we first reported this story, Journey Ledbetter, the 14-year-old who said he's sick of all the gun violence and wants to go to school in a safer part of town...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOURNEY: I don't even know what to say. Gun violence - I lost a lot of friends from gun violence.

MERAJI: His older brother was shot at a pool party a week before graduation and may never walk again.

BENDEREV: Dremar's mom Crystal, who didn't want him to go to Westinghouse...

C EVERETT: Each corner someone's selling drugs on, each corner. Like, no, he can't - no, I cannot see him going to Westinghouse.

BENDEREV: She moved the family an hour away so he could go to a different high school.

MERAJI: And Ms. Boyer, who wanted to stay till the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOYER: I'll be waving the white flag at the last day of school, I guess. I'm going down with the ship.

MERAJI: After looking for a job all summer, she finally got the call that she'll be going back to the Wilkinsburg school district as an elementary school librarian.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Shereen, that was a lot. I mean...

MERAJI: It was.

DEMBY: ...I feel for those kids in Wilkinsburg. Just from personal experience, you know, there's something just disorienting about seeing your neighborhood school close. Both my elementary school and my middle school in Philly were closed down, and they were turned into charters.

MERAJI: I remember you telling me that.

DEMBY: Yeah, and, like, you know, charters aren't general admission. You just can't go if you're from the neighborhood. You have to apply. And so, like, you live in a neighborhood for a long time, and it's, like, one of the places that the neighborhood is sort of organized around is the school and then it's not there anymore. And I just - I understand why people feel so protective of schools that might close, even schools they know are not schools that are good, right? They're not...

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: ...Good schools necessarily because schools are not just schools. They play this bigger role in the social life of communities.

MERAJI: And also, Gene, I kept thinking as I was reporting this story what happens to the building? You know, in this case, it's a huge four-story brick-and-stone behemoth. It's really old and hard to maintain. And now it's just sitting there in a neighborhood that's already blighted.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: And Pew did a study a couple years ago that found that if you don't mothball these old properties right away, they're going to decay and add to that blight. And even if you do mothball them, it's not good for the economic health of the neighborhood to keep a building like that empty for too long. Something's...

DEMBY: Yeah, that makes sense.

MERAJI: ...Got to be done with it.

DEMBY: That makes total sense. There's huge buildings, they take up so much space. In South Philly, I'm actually thinking of this old vocational high school called Bok - Edward Bok High School. It was something of a local institution. My aunt graduated from there and, like, lots of people from South Philly went there. And it closed down finally in 2013, and it was sitting empty up until fairly recently when this developer decided to turn it into, like, a space for creatives. And then someone opened up a beer garden on the roof called Le Bok Fin...

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...Which is a play on the name of this old fancy restaurant from downtown in Philly, four-star restaurant. It was called Le Bec-Fin. And so the stately old building that was in this neighborhood that, like, generations of South Philadelphians had went to was now this place that was basically, like, this haven for gentrifiers. And so, like, there was all this anxiety and anger about what it had become, even though it wasn't a school anymore.

MERAJI: You know, there was a worry about that gentrification in Wilkinsburg that, you know, this school is closing and it's going to be artists' lofts or live-work lofts...

DEMBY: Right, right.

MERAJI: ...And, you know, the amazing old auditorium is going to be this performance space. And you've got to pay to, like, watch the performances.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: But a lot of these old neighborhood public schools actually get turned into charter schools later on.

DEMBY: Right, right.

MERAJI: So that could happen to this building, too. All the possibilities for reuse are bittersweet though because...

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...So many people want it to be what it was for over a hundred years...

DEMBY: Yeah, that's right.

MERAJI: ...The neighborhood high school.

DEMBY: Right, there's no, like, right answer that would make them feel better because it's not what it was.

MERAJI: No, because this is this place that they had their first kiss behind the lockers, the place where they made friends that they know to this day. This is the place where they watched their first football game.

DEMBY: Right, right. Or they played on the team or...

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...You know - we know some of y'all have been through the same experience, and we want to hear about that. And so if you graduate from a school that no longer exists, tell us your story. Call us at 202-836-7703 and leave us a message. We may air your message on an upcoming episode of CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: Yeah, and tell us what happened to the building. Share your memories.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: But that's it for us this week. Thank you, Shereen. I appreciate you.

MERAJI: Thank you, Gene.

DEMBY: I'm glad you reported the story out.

MERAJI: I'm actually - I'm really glad that we aired it on CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Thanks to all of you for listening. The CODE SWITCH podcast is edited by Alicia Montgomery and Tasneem Raja. Our producer is Walter Ray Watson. Our news assistant is Leah Donnella.

MERAJI: You can find us on Twitter @NPRCodeSwitch and email us any time at codeswitch@npr.org. We love hearing from you.

DEMBY: All right, y'all, be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.