In Perry South, transforming a vacant school into a community resource center

This community resource mall will “go a long way to break down invisible walls.”

For Eleanor Williams and English Burton Jr., their work with the North Side Partnership Project is a way to give back to their community.

For Eleanor Williams and English Burton Jr., their work with the North Side Partnership Project is a way to give back to their community.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
Rossilynne Culgan

Chalkboards, lockers and motivational posters still find a home inside a sprawling, century-old school atop a hill in Perry South that closed six years ago.

It’s as if school could begin again tomorrow. And, in a sense, it will.

A nonprofit called the North Side Partnership Project bought the former McNaugher School along Maple Avenue in March from Pittsburgh Public Schools and has already started transforming its 60,000 square-feet into a community resource center. The resource mall will offer a medical center, a recording studio, STEAM labs, a physical fitness center, meeting space and other social services.

Big plans are in the works for the 60,000 square-foot building.

Big plans are in the works for the 60,000 square-foot building.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

The four-story building, circa 1905, has sat vacant since June 12, 2012 after more than a century as a K-12, then a middle school, then a high school, and finally a school for students with special needs until it closed because of a declining population in the school’s area, which served a predominantly African-American population, said Eleanor Williams, a member of the North Side Partnership Project who is spearheading the community resource center plans along with fellow member English Burton, Jr.

Other than some peeling paint, the building was left intact, down to the posters on the wall. It’s like stepping into a time capsule from two different eras. Craftsman hardwood moldings and intricate decorative tile remain from its early 1900s construction. On the walls, a poster of a smiling Barack Obama, President at the time the school closed, hangs on the wall not far from to a hand-drawn sign reading “From Slavery to Presidency, We are Living African-American History.”

The school is a time capsule of two eras.

The school is a time capsule of two eras.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

“It was like they just got up and left,” said Williams, a retired Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher who earned her principal certification at McNaugher. She’s also a pastor at On the Wall Ministries in Perry South.

“This was a learning center for a long time, and we’re going to continue that,” Burton said, adding that its programs will help the area’s families, youth and senior citizens.

The McNaugher School is well-positioned for this work, Burton said, as it sits near the convergence of several North Side neighborhoods, including Perry South, Perry North, Fineview, Summer Hill, Northview Heights, and Spring Hill-City View.

“We call ourself like the hub,” said Burton, a community activist and retired laborer who worked in housing. “It will make a lot of things more accessible to the neighborhoods.”

It’s important to offer services in close proximity to people’s homes, they said.

Inside a classroom, motivational posters still stick to the walls, along with a handdrawn heart for McNaugher.

Inside a classroom, motivational posters still stick to the walls, along with a handdrawn heart for McNaugher.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

They’ll begin their community outreach in just a few days, with a free blood pressure program on April 25. It’s a monthly workshop that will offer health lessons on blood pressure management, a health mentor and resources to self-monitor blood pressure. It also comes with incentives for those who participate fully, including a gift card and a free cooking class.

“We’re going to try to bring as many resources as we can to them,” Burton said. “It will also go a long way to break down invisible walls.”

It’s also integral to offer things for kids to do while their parents come to use the resource mall’s services, they said. Since its founding in 2011, the North Side Partnership Project has strived to give back to the communities of the North Side, especially its children.

There’s already a basketball court and a pool on-site. The group hopes to build STEAM labs, to turn the school’s woodworking shop into a pre-apprenticeship program, and to transform the home economics room into a space for workshops about cooking and nutrition.

“The building just needs a lot of cosmetic reform and some TLC,” Williams said.

Inside one of the school's classrooms.

Inside one of the school's classrooms.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

It will also need funding, and anybody interested in donating, volunteering or in getting involved can find more information on the North Side Partnership Project’s website.

Already, the project completed a successful campaign on community crowdfunding platform In Our Back Yard, and it drew 45 volunteers to a building clean-up last weekend. The group plans to apply for any available government funds, as well.

For now, Burton said, they’ll build their programs just as the building was built a century ago: “One brick at a time.”