Marching to a new beat: Pittsburgh’s Perry High is a rare enrollment winner

From left, Perry Traditional Academy students Josey Cooley, 16, of Perry North, Aaliyha Thompson, 16, of Allegheny Center, Mahlae Pollard, 16, of Perry North, Connie Howard, 15, of Brighton Heights, Makaila Nyambe, 16, of Brighton Heights, and Adevion Cooper, 17, of Summer Hill, at drama club on April 17. Cooley is directing the club’s upcoming zombie comedy. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Community organizations and school staff join forces to reimagine the district’s North Side high school by confronting issues of attendance and infractions — and creating opportunities.

by Lajja Mistry and Jillian Forstadt, PublicSource

When Josey Cooley first started attending Pittsburgh’s Perry Traditional Academy earlier this year, the school hadn’t had a drama club since 2021. Now, just months later, students are getting ready to put on a dinner show set in a zombie apocalypse.

“We’re, like, so close to the finish line. It feels impossible that we did this,” said Cooley, a junior at Perry who’s directing the show. “But we did it.”

Cooley and her peers attribute much of the show’s success to their music teacher, Aaron Taylor, and his efforts to expand the school’s arts offerings. Earlier this school year, Taylor also relaunched the school’s marching band, which had been dormant since the pandemic.

A man stands speaking at the front of a theater to a student audience seated in rows of blue chairs, under spotlight illumination.

Aaron Taylor, a music teacher, drama club instructor, marching band director at Perry Traditional Academy, talks to students during play rehearsal, on April 17. Taylor stays after school three to four days a week for extracurricular activities. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Each new program, he said, is a chance to provide more for current students at Perry and hopefully attract new ones. Donning jackets and plumes in the school’s colors — blue and white — Taylor frequently takes the marching band into the community to perform at local middle schools and events. 

“We’re building those connections, and it’s getting sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders excited to come to high school,” Taylor said. “Not just for high school, but because they know that there are other opportunities there for them.”

It’s all part of a school-led effort to transform Perry into a premier option for the North Side, with offerings in arts and career and technical education pathways for students across Pittsburgh. Educators have partnered with dozens of community organizations and nonprofits during the past few years to increase the number and variety of programs offered there. 

“I want to increase enrollment [and] achievement, but I want the North Side students to have a first-choice high school,” said principal Molly O’Malley-Argueta. “And so that’s what we’re really working hard for at Perry.”

‘Better than yesterday, not as good as tomorrow.’

Perry is the North Side’s only public high school, though more than three-quarters of the neighborhood’s students have been drawn away to private schools, charters and specialized magnet programs in other parts of Pittsburgh. 

Perry is one of PPS’s smallest high schools, serving about 430 students. Of those students, 75% are Black, 88% are economically disadvantaged and nearly 30% receive special education services. As of 2023, the school offers fewer Advanced Placement courses than any other high school in the district.

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