Cover image for The Schenley Experiment: A Social History of Pittsburgh’s First Public High School By Jake Oresick

The Schenley Experiment

A Social History of Pittsburgh’s First Public High School

Jake Oresick


$19.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07833-5

Available as an e-book

240 pages
5.5" × 8.5"
42 b&w illustrations/4 maps

Keystone Books

The Schenley Experiment

A Social History of Pittsburgh’s First Public High School

Jake Oresick

“A highly readable account of the school’s colorful and varied history.”


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The Schenley Experiment is the story of Pittsburgh’s first public high school, a social incubator in a largely segregated city that was highly—even improbably—successful throughout its 156-year existence.

Established in 1855 as Central High School and reorganized in 1916, Schenley High School was a model of innovative public education and an ongoing experiment in diversity. Its graduates include Andy Warhol, actor Bill Nunn, and jazz virtuoso Earl Hines, and its prestigious academic program (and pensions) lured such teachers as future Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather. The subject of investment as well as destructive neglect, the school reflects the history of the city of Pittsburgh and provides a study in both the best and worst of urban public education practices there and across the Rust Belt. Integrated decades before Brown v. Board of Education, Schenley succumbed to default segregation during the “white flight” of the 1970s; it rose again to prominence in the late 1980s, when parents camped out in six-day-long lines to enroll their children in visionary superintendent Richard C. Wallace’s reinvigorated school. Although the historic triangular building was a cornerstone of its North Oakland neighborhood and a showpiece for the city of Pittsburgh, officials closed the school in 2008, citing over $50 million in necessary renovations—a controversial event that captured national attention.

Schenley alumnus Jake Oresick tells this story through interviews, historical documents, and hundreds of first-person accounts drawn from a community indelibly tied to the school. A memorable, important work of local and educational history, his book is a case study of desegregation, magnet education, and the changing nature and legacies of America’s oldest public schools.

“A highly readable account of the school’s colorful and varied history.”
“Before reading Jake Oresick’s fascinating, deeply researched book, I had no idea that simply by attending my beloved neighborhood school I was part of an ‘educational experiment.’ Experiment chronicles the life of a competitive environment with a distinguished staff, a multifaceted curriculum, and a student body unique among those of Pittsburgh’s public high schools.”
“This is truly a memorable book about an important but seldom studied institution—the American high school. And what a remarkable high school! Schenley’s story needs to be known both locally and nationally. Finally, it has been told. Especially intriguing are the school’s early years, when it embodied the highest standards in its construction and in its faculty. Even more remarkably, in an era of rampant discrimination and segregation, Schenley’s racial and ethnic diversity was stunning. The list of alumni—black and white—reads like a who’s who of black and white Pittsburgh. It’s hard to imagine an American high school that brought the likes of W. C. Handy and Marian Anderson to perform—but that was Schenley. We are all in Jake Oresick’s debt for this well-researched book.”
“Those interested in the city of Pittsburgh, urban education, and school choice will have Oresick to thank for this fine book.”

Jake Oresick is an attorney and public policy analyst.




1 Origin Story: The People’s College and Why Schenley High Almost Never Happened

2 These Three Walls: The Comprehensive High School, Edward Stotz, and the Fight to Make Schenley Extraordinary

3 Enter to Learn: 1916–1929

4 Growing Pains : 1930–1949

5 Running Uphill: 1950–1964

6 The Writing on the Walls: 1965–1979

7 If You’re Going to Drop a Bomb: The PHRC, Richard Wallace, and the Teacher Center

8 Renaissance: 1983–1993

9 The School of Choice: 1994–2007

10 Closing Time: Mark Roosevelt, Asbestos, and the “Save Schenley” Movement

11 After Oakland: Reizenstein, University Prep, and Obama Academy


Appendix A Notable Central High Alumni

Appendix B Notable Schenley High Alumni

Appendix C Athletics

Appendix D Theater

Appendix E Pittsburgh Public High Schools Index