After close to 60 years of serving the city as an educator, counselor and school administrator, Helen Faison, Ph.D, is still unwilling to end a career she has dedicated most of her life to.
With her extensive background in urban education and the honor of being the first African-American to serve as a superintendent in Pittsburgh, Faison could be considered the resident expert on how to improve the Pittsburgh Public School District. Still, with her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and years of experience, what Faison thinks students need most is the support of their family.
Faison graduated from Westinghouse High School, where she later worked as a counselor.
Faison realizes many of today’s young people do not have a strong family to help them through school and sees this as the reason for declining graduation rates.
“So many parents are trying to raise kids alone,” Faison said. “I think if your parent dies, you can deal with that better than a parent that deserts you.”
For young boys especially, Faison said not having a father figure can be detrimental. She says it is harder for children to grow up in today’s society because there are many more temptations.
Faison said many students in the PPS are not ready for college once they graduate and others cannot afford it. She said programs like the Pittsburgh Promise will help students in the PPS, but getting them motivated to take advantage of this program will be difficult because many have lost hope.
With her keen insight into the minds of youth, Faison says the job she most enjoyed was working as a counselor at Westinghouse in the 1960s. She says it was a time when opportunities were opening up for African-Americans.
From the time she started her career till now, Faison has seen many changes in the PPS including a change in the racial makeup of schools such as Westinghouse which was once predominantly White and now is predominantly Black. She has also seen an ever-shrinking student population caused by declining residency in the city.
“A lot of what’s being offered (in schools) has not changed, but students are very, very different,” said Faison. “Many students don’t go to school in their districts because they go to other schools through the magnet programs.”
When she was an area superintendent for the East End schools, she had an instrumental role in the creation of schools like the Pittsburgh Public High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Of her many successes as a superintendent she says she is glad to have been able to give parents and students more choices for their education.
After retiring from the PPS, Faison began teaching education courses at Chatham before finally settling down with the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute. Here, public school teachers have the opportunity to participate in seminars on a variety of topics to ensure their knowledge and skills remain fresh.
After serving as the principal of Fifth Avenue High School, a counselor at Westinghouse, and the interim superintendent of the entire PPS district, Faison is constantly recognized by former students and teachers who have worked under her. The Helen Faison Academy, stands as a tribute to her unending impact on the PPS and the many lives she has touched.