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Two Schools Consolidate to Form Sister Thea Bowman Academy in Wilkinsburg

Thursday, September 30, 2010
By Tina Calabro

The name of Sister Thea Bowman may not be widely recognized, but within the Catholic education community, she is celebrated for her commitment to the education of underprivileged children, especially those of African-American descent.

Sister Thea, a Mississippi native and granddaughter of a slave, converted to Catholicism at age 9 and later joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin.

As a scholar, speaker and performer, she presented as many as 100 inspirational talks per year before her death from breast cancer in 1990 at age 53. At the height of her ministry, she was interviewed on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

Over the past two decades, a number of Catholic schools across the nation have been named in her honor. Now her legacy has become part of a newly consolidated Catholic elementary school in Wilkinsburg.

Sister Thea Bowman Academy, for pre-kindergarten through grade eight, replaces the former Holy Rosary elementary school in Homewood and the St. James elementary school in Wilkinsburg. The academy is in the former St. James building at 721 Rebecca St.

The diocesan committee that chose the name for the school was attracted to Sister Thea’s “charismatic and prayerful” approach, said the Rev. Kris Stubna, diocesan secretary for Catholic education.

“She is an excellent role model and inspiration for the school,” he said.

The consolidation of the schools became necessary because enrollment in each had declined to below 150, Father Stubna said. He added that declining enrollment in those schools reflects fewer school-age children in the city overall. The new academy has 300 students.

The consolidation decreases the cost of maintaining two buildings while enabling the new school to offer more programs, such as new science labs, he said.

The St. James building was chosen for use because it is the newer of the two and because students who live in Wilkinsburg do not have school bus transportation, but those who live in Pittsburgh do.

The decision to recast the school as an academy reflects its focus on “educational excellence and faith formation,” Father Stubna said.

The consolidated school, like the two schools it succeeds, is an initiative of the Extra Mile Foundation, which provides financial support to selected Catholic schools located in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods as well as scholarships to cover tuition.

The two other elementary schools supported by the foundation are slated for consolidation in the fall of 2011: St. Benedict the Moor in the Hill District and St. Agnes in West Oakland.

Father Stubna said the schools supported by the Extra Mile Foundation “give a choice for a quality program in an environment of faith.”

Michael and Yulanda Johnson of Lincoln-Lemington have four children at Sister Thea Bowman Academy in grades two, five, seven and eight. Last year, all four attended St. James.

Mr. Johnson said that combining school populations presents challenges, but “the staff is dedicated to making it go smoothly.”

Among the new features he appreciates in the facility are the science labs and brighter lighting. “The new labs are beautiful, an environment where kids are excited about learning,” he said.

He said he also is pleased about a strong turnout at parent meetings, the addition of two male teachers and upgrades to the school uniforms.

The Johnsons moved to Pittsburgh from Baltimore five years ago and soon decided to send their children to a Catholic school.

“We wanted them to be in a strong learning environment and have small class sizes,” Mr. Johnson said. Receiving help with the tuition cost also was a factor, he said.

Tuition at Sister Thea Bowman Academy is $1,800 for the first child in a family and $600 for the second. Additional children attend at no charge.

Like many families in schools supported by Extra Mile, the Johnsons are not members of a Catholic parish, but they say they are comfortable with the religious environment of the school.

Mr. Johnson, a customer service representative for Comcast, volunteers as a basketball coach at the school and noted that the consolidation has produced more interest in the team. The school is planning to add soccer and track teams.

“The larger enrollment has opened opportunities,” he said.

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