the way we were lV

The Higbee School, built in 1794 in what is now Upper St. Clair, was moved to Mt. Lebanon Park in the 1930s, where it served as a teen hangout. It was razed in the 1950s.

 

 

In 2000, mtl published The Way We Were, an 86-page history of Mt. Lebanon written by the magazine’s staff and contributors. The book was a big success—preorders covered printing costs—and the it eventually sold out. It seems fitting to revisit the book during Mt. Lebanon’s centennial year, sharing an abridged version with everyone. So each month we are running excerpts from one of the book’s nine chapters, along with some “new” pictures. The complete chapters will be posted each month at www.lebomag.com.

Although the roots of Mt. Lebanon schools reach to the late 1790s, when children studied at tree trunk tables in a one-room log cabin in what is now Upper St. Clair, the school district was not born until 1912, when Mt. Lebanon separated from Scott Township.

Under the supervision of the Allegheny County School Board, the district began with about 200 students and four existing school buildings—the four-room, white frame Ammann Avenue School at Washington Road and present-day Cedar Boulevard (formerly Ammann Avenue) that served grades one through four; a Beadling Road schoolhouse that served children of Beadling coal miners, and a rented building on Washington Road for fifth- and sixth-grade students. Seventh- and eighth-graders traveled to Beechview, and high schoolers rode the West Liberty Avenue trolley to schools in Dormont, Pittsburgh or the South Side.

One of the first steps the new district took was eliminating a year of elementary school, along with homework and examinations, and adding a new two-year high school. The curriculum stressed “practical value” and included studies in algebra, botany, forestry and vocal music, among others subjects. Although embraced in theory initially, the new system soon met with resistance from parents, as well as teachers who were fired en masse for voicing their objections.

This two-story white frame schoolhouse was built in 1895 at the corner of what is now Washington Road and Cedar Boulevard. It served grades one to four until Washington School opened in 1923.

In 1915, the Better Schools Party of Mt. Lebanon Township prevailed; a newly elected school board ended the experiment and restored the former system, but the episode laid groundwork for a tradition of fierce community involvement and interest in the schools that continues today.

A series of land purchases beginning in 1919 set a precedent—as an area developed, an elementary school was built in the center of it. The concept of neighborhood schools became entrenched.

Washington School opened in 1923. Scorned by some as a wasteful extravagance for a rural community, the school’s Greek Revival architecture set the tone for subsequent school buildings in the township, which opened in rapid succession—Lincoln (1925), Howe (1927) and Markham (1929). St. Bernard Roman Catholic School on Washington Road opened in 1925. In 1927, the district began offering high school classes at Washington School, as construction began on a high school on Cochran Road.
By 1930, Mt. Lebanon was reclassified as a third-class school district, meaning the district was no longer under the Allegheny County School Board and instead reported directly to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction. The administrative system was overhauled, with the post of superintendent of schools replacing that of supervising principal. Dr. C. Herman Grose, Mt. Lebanon’s first superintendent, served from 1931 to 1935.

Looking up Beverly Road toward Lincoln School circa 1930.

In 1931, 70 students comprised Mt. Lebanon’s first high school graduating class. In the next six years, district enrollment would swell to 3,700, overcrowding the high school and prompting construction of Mellon Junior High, which opened in 1939.

Foster Elementary School opened in 1941, marking the beginning of a brief moratorium on building that ended when Jefferson Elementary School opened in 1952. Jefferson Junior High School, an addition to the elementary school, opened in 1959.

Years of prosperity in the community followed World War II. Mt. Lebanon continued to attract well-educated and affluent residents. In 1958, median household after-tax income was $8,000—about $60,000 today. About 28 percent of households had incomes of $10,000 or more (about $75,000 in 2012) while the national average was $5,650 (about $42,000 today). Money was available for education, as township assets swelled from a value of $3 million in 1912 to $105 million in 1959, and school taxes grew from 4 to 22 mills over the same period. In 1953, Mt. Lebanon was the first district in Western Pennsylvania to institute the National Advanced Placement Program. In 1957, Mt. Lebanon gained national recognition when Time Magazine ranked the high school in the nation’s top 35.

A photo from the Mt. Lebanon High School 1943 yearbook of “Bill, Peggyjo and Roger.”

Enrollment skyrocketed as baby boomers moved through the system. Hoover School opened in 1964, and four years later added 12 rooms. In 1967, plans began for a $14 million construction project to expand the senior high school. To circumvent community opposition to the project, the board voted to fund construction through authority financing, avoiding a ballot referendum and certain defeat. But the community still managed to assert its influence—groundbreaking came only after estimated costs were cut by $1.25 million. Built to suit an envisioned instructional program, the new building included a center court, three cafeterias and a fine arts wing. In 1975, three years after the addition opened, Mt. Lebanon’s high school enrollment peaked with 3,200 students and the school’s largest graduating class of 810.

But soon after reaching its zenith, enrollment ebbed. Within a few years, discussions began about possible school closings. Public hearings on the subject were heated, as residents asserted their reluctance to surrender any of the seven neighborhood elementary schools. Instead, Jefferson Junior High closed in 1983 and Mellon in 1986. Students in grades 7 and 8 moved to the sixth floor of the senior high building.

 

Ralph Horsman, left, came to Mt. Lebanon in 1929 as a math teacher. He went on to serve as an elementary, junior high and high school principal, assistant superintendent and then, in 1946, school district superintendent. When he retired in 1969, the street around the high school was named for him.

Staffing decreased significantly, and to prevent stagnation as new teachers—and their fresh perspectives—became rare, administrators and teachers teamed to create an intensive staff development program, an innovative and successful model that attracted inquiries from across the country. The idea worked: in 1984, the National School Recognition Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, named Mt. Lebanon among the country’s top 100 public high schools. As the 1990s dawned, the first-ever strategic planning process began—well ahead of the state’s mandate for strategic plans to be prepared by districts every five years.

In the early 1970s, as student enrollment swelled, the high school underwent an expansion project that included a fine arts wing.

Fueled by baby boomer offspring, a growth spurt erupted in the late 1980s and by the close of the century the total student population had grown to nearly 7,000, a 40 percent increase over the decade. It quickly became evident that the number of existing classrooms would not accommodate the growing number of students. With input from school board members, teachers, administrators, students and residents as well as a nationally known consultant hired to evaluate and affirm strategies, a plan evolved to renovate the furloughed Mellon and Jefferson into middle schools. After $14 million worth of renovations, the schools reopened in the fall of 1998.

Throughout the decades, Mt. Lebanon has upheld its reputation for excellence, both in academics and in cocurricular activities ranging from fine arts to sports. Mt. Lebanon’s Academic Games and Forensics teams regularly have claimed medals. Sports teams and individual athletes consistently have brought home WPIAL and PIAA titles. The Hall of Champions in the school’s lower level displays hundreds of trophies and plaques, representing the school’s triumphs as a powerhouse in various team and individual sports. The high school’s musical groups have performed in regional and national forums, including performances by the band at Walt Disney World, the Triple Trio at the White House and the orchestra at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. In 1998, Mt. Lebanon High School was honored for the third time as a Blue Ribbon school by the United State Department of Education and received a special award for its outstanding Fine Arts program.