A Northgate elementary student uses Lego blocks and coding software to create a robot at BotsIQ after-school camp.

A Northgate elementary student uses Lego blocks and coding software to create a robot at BotsIQ after-school camp.

‘Innovating through Proximity,’ Northgate School District Partners with a Resurgent Community Resource

How a small public school district on the outskirts of Pittsburgh is leveraging partnerships —including a collaboration with neighboring Suburban General — to give students the flexibility to pursue anywhere, anytime learning.

This article is part of a series that highlights school districts in the region that are aligned with the Personalized Learning Framework created by the SWPA personalized learning working group.

After school last fall, Elliana Johnston, a sophomore at Northgate High School in Allegheny County, walked to Suburban General, a sprawling former hospital turned innovation hub that housed her internship.

With a handful of Northgate peers, Elliana enrolled in a Robotics Technician pre-apprenticeship, an extension of classroom interest and learning that gave her real-world access to tech careers and applications, something she was peripherally aware of as the daughter of a software engineer.

“Growing up, I had a lot of experience with electronics, but I never really got it,” she said.

During her pre-apprenticeship at Suburban General, surrounded by creative resources and adjacent to dozens of med-tech startups and incubators, something clicked for Elliana. Encouraged by her peers, beyond the constraints of bell schedules and school walls, she developed a new zeal for circuitry and soldering.

“All the experiences tied together,” said Elliana, who now sees herself “doing something in the future with robotics.”

The exterior of AHN Suburban Hospital.
Suburban General at 100 S. Jackson Avenue, Pittsburgh. After COVID, the former in-patient hospital was reborn as an innovation hub.

From Liability to Asset, a Community Anchor Resurges

After Suburban General’s in-patient and emergency services shuttered in 2010, the 230,000-square-foot building was largely dormant. Surrounding communities felt the loss acutely.

Suburban General and Northgate are neighboring institutions, wedged between the residential boroughs of Bellevue and Avalon, tight-knit communities on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. As local anchors, their fortunes are interconnected.

A decade after the closure, hospital and community leaders were determined to repurpose Suburban General as a community asset. It also became an important test case for wider neighborhood revitalization efforts.

After Suburban was reborn as a tech and innovation hub in 2022, it paved the way for a unique partnership with the 1,000-student Northgate School District.

To benefit students like Elliana, gaining access to the newly revitalized space was critical, explained Jeff Evancho, the director of Partnerships & Equity at Northgate School District. The District established a shared-space agreement with Suburban during the relaunch.

“We knew we could innovate through proximity,” Evancho said. “Just by being with people in the same space, we found ‘win-wins.’”

With a shoestring budget and a “hacker” mentality, the District renovated the seventh floor of Suburban General, repurposing paint colors from a sister hospital and reclaiming cast-off furniture. It now maintains two large multipurpose rooms for after-school programs and a handful of offices. “We’re continuously making improvements,” Evancho said.

The District has strategically leveraged its new space to bring in partners like BotsIQ, STEM Coding Lab, and Carnegie Mellon Arts Greenhouse. All provide free programming onsite.

Three teenage boys work on a robot.
Students involved in the BotsIQ program work on a robot during a community event at Suburban General.

Perhaps most importantly, students engaged at Suburban General can observe and learn from the innovation, free-flowing ideas and measured risk-taking of startups operating from the expansive innovation hub. (Healthcare accelerator AlphaLab Health is headquartered there, among others).

“Everything in Suburban General has an incubator-type mindset,” said Evancho, who is building an infrastructure to ensure that more students can access flexible learning at Suburban.

The District, Evancho said, is continuously asking, “What tenants are in the building, what are their needs, and how can we link that to our secondary academic programs for job shadowing, internships and apprenticeships?”

Back at Northgate High School, the District’s intentional work to build robust partnerships is helping counselor Zack Burns cultivate personalized learning opportunities that match students with fields of interest — at Suburban General and elsewhere.

In practice, that means students are selecting their internship placements and co-creating core goals, with the flexibility to pivot and change their minds. Students who complete internships can earn up to four elective credits toward graduation, but learning outside the classroom is only part of the goal.

“We’re helping students understand the responsibilities of a real-world work experience,” Burns said.

“They are learning on their own and forced to develop accountability and responsibility and put those principles into use. We empower students to advocate for themselves and ask, ‘What do I want to get out of this?’”

Author: Erin Kane