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October 27, 2005

Globetrotting educator lands at Falk School

Wendell McConnaha’s work in laboratory schools has taken him around the world. He was principal at the historic University of Chicago laboratory school, designed schools in the Middle East and planned and built a lab school campus in Nigeria.

As a superintendent of Grey-hills Academy in the Western Navajo Nation, he — with a translator — sat in on school board meetings conducted in the Navajo language. Despite spending two years at the school, he admits he managed to learn only a handful of words, confirming that American military commanders were right when they chose Navajo code talkers to pass secret messages during World War II.

After working on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, the 59-year-old educator arrived here in July to become director of Falk School, the laboratory school affiliated with Pitt’s School of Education. His wife, Judith McConnaha, has been named director of development in the Graduate School of Public Health.

The director’s office at Falk bears witness to his far-flung experience. Weavings made by Navajo students hang among the photos, souvenirs and awards from around the world that fill the walls and cover nearly every flat surface. His desk nameplate is engraved in English and Arabic, brought back from his work in Abu Dhabi.

Korean wall hangings — meant to flank a doorway to bring luck and happiness to all who pass through — hang side by side for lack of space around the doorway, perhaps bringing luck to anyone who comes through the wall, McConnaha jokes.

Several mementos bear messages of admiration. A plaque given when he departed the Chicago school honors him as “A leader among leaders, a friend among friends, a teacher among teachers.”

Another acknowledges his service to the National Association of Laboratory Schools.

Among his favorite decorations is a photo of students in front of a lab school affiliated with Abia State University in Aba, Nigeria. McConnaha oversaw the construction of the 11 buildings that make up that school.

His career has spanned more than three decades, with 18 of those years spent in lab schools.

McConnaha was drawn to Pittsburgh from the University of Toledo, where he was director of field placement, partnerships and international programs, one of his few non-lab school appointments.

He says he knew of Falk by reputation and was impressed with its tradition, stability and support from the School of Education.

By definition, a laboratory school is affiliated with an institute of higher learning. Its primary mission is to prepare new teachers or to research learning-related subjects such as curriculum development. Falk’s faculty members are all faculty in Pitt’s School of Education and each mentors a handpicked Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) student as an intern in his or her classroom.

The school was established on University Drive in 1931 through an endowment from Leon Falk Jr. and Marjorie Falk Levy, in memory of their mother, Fanny Edel Falk.

In recent years, the number of lab schools, which once numbered more than 400, has dwindled to about 100, McConnaha said.

“The primary role for a lab school was simply a place where interns or student teachers could be placed,” he said. Today, it’s less expensive to place them in public schools, he said.

Falk’s reputation and close-knit alumni are among the reasons it has thrived where other lab schools have disappeared. Through its legacy priority policy, children of former Falk students are given preference in enrollment. Many classroom seats are filled with second- or third-generation Falk students, adding to the familial environment.

“It’s highly embedded in the city,” said Alan Lesgold, professor and dean of the School of Education.

Another reason Falk has continued to thrive is that its tuition makes it largely self-supporting, Lesgold said.

Strengthening school ties

Any lab school’s role as a research site for its affiliated university’s education school is a natural, but McConnaha intends to maximize Falk’s value to Pitt by forging partnerships with other academic units as well.

“In most cases, the lab school is an underutilized asset in the university,” he said. “We need to position Falk School better than it currently is as a research or project option for other entities within the University,” he said.

In his first months on the job, he is concentrating on strengthening connections with the School of Education and with the Learning Research and Development Center, which is conducting word recognition research and other studies at Falk. At the same time, McConnaha is keeping his eyes open for opportunities to build mutually beneficial partnerships with other University schools and departments.

Those bonds have yet to be developed at Pitt, but McConnaha has experience in creating win-win situations. Among the dozens of deals he facilitated while at the University of Chicago, McConnaha paired business school graduate assistants for whom English was a second language with struggling students who spoke the graduate students’ native language. Putting the graduate students to work as tutors gave them meaningful jobs and helped the laboratory school students get the extra help they needed in a language they could understand.

McConnaha’s concept of considering the whole University as prime territory for partnership has the School of Education’s support.

“Education doesn’t just live in (the School of) Education,” Lesgold said. “I think Wendell’s attitude is that a lab school is healthy if it’s obviously an asset to the University,” he said.

Construction on the horizon?

McConnaha, who has several school construction projects under his belt, may be donning a hard hat again as the University examines plans to renovate the aging school. “A major part of my immediate future is looking at what sort of renovation or addition would make sense,” he said.

When Falk School first opened its doors, 78 students were enrolled in nursery school through sixth grade. As Falk approaches its 75th anniversary, its rolls have swelled to 280 students, kindergarten through eighth grade.

Quarters are tight inside — some classes meet in stairwells, using chalkboards mounted on the walls of the stairway landings. Outside, the school vies for space with its neighbor across the street: The Veterans Administration has announced plans to build a 1,500-car parking garage and a behavioral health pavilion at its University Drive complex, which likely will add to traffic congestion on the narrow, winding street.

Architects have been assessing Falk expansion and renovation options since last year. “We anticipate recommendations to be made in the second semester,” McConnaha said. Options include remodeling the existing building; constructing an addition to create a building the ideal size for the 280-member student body, or expanding with an eye toward increasing enrollment. Relocating the school is not an option, McConnaha said.

Remodeling likely would force the school to cut classroom space to meet current building code requirements. That would reduce the number of students the school can accommodate, McConnaha said. Given Falk’s ever-present waiting list and the fact that income from tuition makes up most of its annual budget, that does not appear to be a viable option.

Details on how an addition would be funded and what role the University might have in the financing are yet to be resolved.

Robert Pack, Falk school board chairman and vice provost of academic planning and resources management, would not elaborate on any plans.

“We’re in the advanced stages of exploring what is possible,” Dean Lesgold said. “As soon as we know what’s practical, we’ll be discussing it with the Falk school board, Falk family, parents and teachers.”

Tuition rose by $1,000 to $8,250 this year, in part to seed a capital development fund, McConnaha said. Future increases are expected to be more in line with the typical 3 to 5 percent per year.

McConnaha hopes to prepare a projection of anticipated tuition increases to give parents an idea of the financial commitment they may be facing in the next five years. “If I were sitting there with three children in the school and saw a $1,000 increase this year, I’d wonder if there’s going to be another one next year,” he said.

McConnaha’s extensive construction experience will be beneficial as plans for Falk come into focus. He was principal at a high school in Nebraska that underwent a renovation that included asbestos removal and encapsulation. Scheduling the project to accommodate the remodeling as well as the school calendar was the major challenge, he said.

In the United Arab Emirates, where every school building in the country is identical, he oversaw the conversion of schools in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain to lab schools. And, he planned an 11-building lab school campus in Aba, Nigeria, that now serves 1,200 students in preschool through 12th grade.

“It was the first time I ever had control of a project starting from the design, the hiring of an administrator and planning curriculum,” he said, naming it as one of his most fulfilling projects.

“It was very satisfying to go back three years later when the buildings were up and the kids were in place where once there was an open field,” he said.

That project was the brainchild of a Nigerian immigrant whose daughter graduated from the Chicago lab school where McConnaha had been principal. The man wanted to give something back to his homeland and asked McConnaha to build a lab school.

This year’s goals

While renovation plans remain undecided, McConnaha has identified three focus areas for the current school year. He is keeping the spotlight on an ongoing curriculum review coordinated by Falk middle school teacher and former interim director Greg Wittig.

“We want to examine it for scope and sequence to determine how effectively the subject matter flows from one grade level to another,” McConnaha said.

Falk teacher David Ross is examining ways to orient new faculty and MATs to Falk’s culture so that students consistently get an education that aligns with Falk’s values. Marian Vollmer, a Falk teacher, assistant director and admissions coordinator, is examining the school’s admissions process and the way in which new families are brought into the school.

Also on McConnaha’s plate this year may be a search for a new language teacher, following the departure last year of Falk’s Japanese teacher. A school committee is examining the scope and focus of the school’s language program, including which languages will be taught. A decision is to be made by the end of the current semester, after which a search can begin, he said.

Early reactions

Following the well-liked William McDonald, who retired as director in 2004, would be difficult for anyone, acknowledged Falk PTA president Sharon Semenza. McDonald taught at Falk for 27 years before becoming director in 1996.

“Bill McDonald was so loved by everybody in the community. … He had a very personal relationship with the students and with the families,” she said. McConnaha already is developing that rapport, she said. “I think he really has a sense of fitting in.”

McConnaha said the school’s size — not too large and not too small — helps maintain closeness among its families. He said he already has developed rapport and familiarity with the faculty and is beginning to develop ties with the 280 students as well.

He has attended curriculum meetings and open houses and has begun going into the classrooms to tell stories to the kindergarteners and read to the first-graders.

“The students are getting to the point where there’s a recognition of who I am and what I do,” he said.

Wittig acknowledged the importance of the school’s family atmosphere and commended McConnaha for being “just a natural” at connecting in the short time he’s been here.

“My style has always been to be as visible as possible, to be out in the building,” McConnaha said.

His extensive experience and the ease with which he dealt with teachers, administrators and parents quickly made an impression during the search for a director amid a field of highly qualified applicants, Dean Lesgold said.

“He has a huge track record in effectively running lab schools,” Lesgold said, adding that his warm personality distinguished him during the interview process. “He just stood out with being able to work with all the people involved,” said Lesgold, who is optimistic about Falk’s future.

“I think we’ve got a good shot at being an even more exciting place,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 5

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