From its origins in West Virginia, the Monongahela River cuts through steep Appalachian hillsides on its northbound journey toward Pittsburgh. Throughout the 19th century, the river’s system of locks and dams brought coal from mines further south, turning the valley’s small riverside towns into booming sites of industry: Braddock, Rankin, McKeesport, Duquesne, and more. The cluster of communities in what’s now known as the Mon Valley became a steelmaking powerhouse, putting Pittsburgh on the map as a major industrial player.
Today, a drive along the Mon reflects the changes since the heydays of the 20th century. As manufacturing jobs disappeared, so did large swaths of the valley’s population; grand buildings and wide streets sit mostly quiet now. But the communities that remain are optimistic and proud.
As Aaron Altemus, a program officer at the Consortium for Public Education, says, “Lots of the traditional jobs are gone, but the skills that people have here — creativity, imagination, and the ability to make things — are still in demand. They’re just in different industries.” Altemus, the Consortium, and many others are working to help a new generation of Mon Valley residents connect to those industries as the region remakes itself for the 21st century.
We caught up with Altemus at the Consortium’s McKeesport office to learn more.
Can you tell us a bit about the Consortium for Public Education?
The Consortium is a nonprofit based out of McKeesport that’s been around for 30-plus years. We work with school districts across eight counties and more than 40 school districts, focusing on getting students ready for the future. We believe that every student needs to graduate high school with a formal, viable plan. That might mean going to college, going to technical school, or getting an apprenticeship — in any case, it should be a plan that students develop with adults and their communities based on their interests.
We have lots of different programs. For example, I work with Nepali and Bhutanese refugees at Baldwin and Brashear. We focus on developing their skills and interests, teaching self-reflection, and providing students with real-world experience and exposure. It’s important for students to know who they are first, and then to figure out how they can connect their skills and interests to the real world. We have programs where students get to go to trade unions and do college visits. They sit down with actual college students — not just your regular tour guides — and ask real questions at a roundtable.
Which Remake Learning Days events are you most excited about?
This is our second year partnering with the Woodland Hills Intermediate School and its wonderful principal, Allison Kline. We partnered with them last year to host a STEAM Maker Faire, and we’re going to be doing it again this year. Our main goal is to show the whole community some of the unique activities and learning that happens there. For example, last year, students at the Intermediate School built a hovercraft. It was pretty incredible — folks came down on Remake Learning Night and could watch students floating around in the gym! We also brought in some of our other partner programs: We had African drumming with Gateway to the Arts [now part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust], LED jewelry design with Assemble, and folks from Art Expression teaching students to create self-portraits with iPads. There were probably about 20 different activities last year, and we’re going to have that again this year.
What do students like about these kinds of activities?
Middle schoolers generally don’t know what they don’t know. They’re very malleable. For example, we introduced students to 3D design this year. They had no idea they were capable of designing things like airplane models. It’s very fascinating to watch them become experts in something, and you can draw that out with technology and making and art.
When I’m working with students, instead of just saying, “Good job,” I say, “How did you make that? Show me. Teach me how you did this.” And I think that kind of empowers them. If you find the right angle, they’ll buy in. And that’s our goal: to introduce students to 21st century skills like engineering, design, creativity, and problem-solving. For a lot of our students — particularly our boys — staring at blank canvas can be a challenge. Finding a format that allows them to open up and be creative is essential, and something we’re always working toward. When we worked with Art Expression, we found that a lot of our students perceived art as just painting, and they struggled with that. But give middle schoolers a block of clay and let them shape it and pound it and create something with their hands, and they realize that they do have these great skills and imaginations. They say, “I didn’t realize I had this in me!” And that’s kind of the whole point.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Mon Valley?
The 7th and 8th graders I serve come from 12 distinct neighborhoods, and they all come to one building at the junior/senior high school for our afterschool program. Their neighborhoods are very different — they all have their separate personalities — and I see that in the students who attend. At the Consortium, we really work to show students that they have shared interests, shared skills, and shared opportunities that they can take advantage of together.
I think events like Remake Learning Days really help — they create these open-door, come-on-in-and-see-the-school activities that break down walls. I particularly like the Intermediate School’s building because it’s nestled right in the Swissvale neighborhood. It’s accessible. It’s walkable. And I think that’s a great advantage — the key is just getting people to come out and see it for themselves.
What do you hope attendees get from Remake Learning Days?
We had more than 150 parents and students come to our event last year, and I think it was very eye-opening. You can use social media and you can send out newsletters, but there’s no substitute for seeing things like that in real life. Parents were blown away. If anything, I want people to walk away from our Remake Learning Days event knowing that great experiences for kids are available right there in their own neighborhoods. There’s so much going on — it’s really exciting to see.
To learn more about events happening in the Mon, please visit www.remakelearningdays.org/mon-valley
This blog is part of “Neighborhood Navigators: Remaking Learning in Your Neighborhood,” a special initiative to connect children and youth in six Pittsburgh neighborhoods and parts of West Virginia to Remake Learning Days (May 15-26). Each week, we’ll spotlight a new community. In Pittsburgh, we’ll visit neighborhoods in the Northside, the Hilltop, the Hill District, the Mon Valley, the East End, and Hazelwood; in West Virginia, we’ll visit Morgantown, Charleston, and Wheeling.
Follow writer Ryan Rydzewski on Twitter @RyanRydzewski.
Remake Learning thanks the Consortium for Public Education for coordinating the Mon Valley’s events and outreach.