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May 12, 2005

Helen S. Faison delivers commencement address

Pitt’s Class of 2005, some 6,000 strong, were told by a well-known local educator and Pitt alumna to take their alma mater home with them — “to use some of your gifts to ensure that every child is given access to the best possible educational experience.”

Helen S. Faison, director of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute and holder of three Pitt degrees, told graduates at the May 1 commencement exercises, “I implore you that no matter what educational experiences you have enjoyed, what educational or other privileges you may be able to provide for the children in your own family, that you become and remain concerned about the other children and other families in our nation.”

During a career in public school education spanning five and a half decades, Faison has accumulated a number of impressive “firsts,” Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg told a packed house at the Petersen Events Center. These include becoming the Pittsburgh Public School District’s first female high school principal, as well as its first African-American high school principal, and being the first African American to lead Pittsburgh’s public schools (Faison was interim superintendent from early 1999 to mid-2000).

“Last fall, she was cited as western Pennsylvania’s most influential person in education, an honor fittingly bestowed on her,” Nordenberg noted. Faison also has been named among the top 100 educators in the nation, as well as a Pitt legacy laureate and distinguished alumna, a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania and a Carlow Woman of Spirit, he said.

“If every good teacher deserves an apple, Helen Faison deserves an orchard,” Nordenberg said. “Our School of Education built the foundation of her own life of impact which is a source of great pride in our academic community.”

Following his introductory remarks, Nordenberg, Provost James V. Maher and Pitt Board of Trustees Chair Ralph J. Cappy, who read the citation of honor, conferred an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree upon Faison.

She then spoke on “You Can Take It With You,” a brief history lesson on public school developments in this country over the past 50 years that was sprinkled with advice for the new graduates.

In the span of years since the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the country has become more concerned about the failure of the public school system to educate large segments of our population, Faison said.

The Brown case, which declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional, set in motion a series of court battles and “led to the abandonment of public schools by many white families and the establishment of a host of religious and other nonpublic schools in protest,” she said.

“To the chagrin of those of us who welcomed the Brown decision as the beginning of a new era in the struggle for equal educational opportunity for all children in the nation, recent demographic and other changes have resulted in there being more black children attending racially segregated schools today than were attending segregated schools in 1954.”

Nonetheless, in the early years following the Brown decision, public schools could be deemed a success in that they prepared the general citizenry for employment.

“As long as there was space in the economy for those whose formal education was very limited, we could be proud,” Faison maintained. “The schools were doing well in terms of what was expected of them. [Public high school graduates] easily found places waiting for them in the economy in which they could earn reasonably good livings and support families.”

Those who wished could go on to post-secondary school education prepared for college and eventually for professions and careers that required more formal schooling, she said.

But the advent of technology, triggered particularly by the 1950s and ’60s space race with the Soviet Union, and the rise of the global economy have left public school graduates woefully unprepared for today’s job markets, Faison said.

“When it began to become clear that thousands, even millions, of those being served by our public school system were not faring well in the economy into which they were moving, many began to doubt the effectiveness of the system,” Faison said. “As a growing underclass out of which escape became more and more difficult to achieve began to grow, it became clear that immediate intervention was essential.”

That concern is manifested in the growing influence of the federal government on public school education, signaled by the establishment of national goals at a series of governors’ conferences on education in the 1980s and ’90s, Faison said.

“The follow-up to the national goals was the passage by Congress of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 — an act that has been opposed and supported with equal enthusiasm, [in which] the federal government is using the power of its purse to achieve compliance,” she said.

“In a nation whose Constitution does not even mention the word education, the federal creep into matters related to public education has grown, as the quality of public education available to all children has been shown to be highly correlated to the wealth of their families or the communities in which they live.”

So, what does that mean for Pitt’s newest graduates, who are prepared to embark on careers or to continue their education or to assume the responsibilities of a world-ready person? Faison asked.

“You are ready to pass a rich legacy on to your descendants,” she said. “But do not forget that you are going to live your life — as we all must — in a world that is beset with all kinds of problems that cannot be confined to an area or to a certain group of people; problems such as diseases, acts of nature, violence, crime, poverty and hopelessness from which we cannot escape.”

It is the responsibility of educated persons to seek answers to these common problems, Faison said.

“And many of us believe that a good education is a part of the solution,” she said. “If you plan to become a teacher, or if you plan to prepare individuals for careers in education, or to administer public schools or even to seek service on school boards, you can see the connection.

“But if you do not have any such plans, I still hope that the educational issues to which I have referred will find a place on your life’s agenda after the University of Pittsburgh, after today.”

In addition to degrees conferred at the May 1 ceremony, Pitt also awarded about 1,000 degrees to students at the regional campuses, which held their own ceremonies.

—Peter Hart

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