When students from Hillel Academy’s second grade wanted a restroom installed at one of their favorite parks, they traveled downtown.
“It started with a story in their reader, and then we came across something in social studies,” explained their teacher, Chaya Berelowitz.
Berelowitz and her students had studied government. In an effort to promote project-based learning, a pedagogical enterprise where students gain knowledge and skills by exploring real-world problems, Berelowitz challenged her student son the notion of citizenship. She questioned how individuals affect each of the government’s branches. She asked what changes could be made locally and how they could be accomplished. Immediately, students determined a bathroom was needed at Davis Playground, the park located on Hobart Street between Murray Avenue and Wightman Street. With Berelowitz’s help, a petition was started.
The students traveled from classroom to classroom, then dispersed throughout the neighborhood collecting signatures from parents and community members. Within days, nearly 400 people had signed the petition for a bathroom at Davis Playground.
Berelowitz contacted City Councilman Corey O’Connor and arranged a meeting between the parties. On Tuesday, April 8, the students traveled downtown by bus, arrived at the City-County Building, rode the elevators to the fifth floor and entered the council chambers. In a courtly room bearing the names of Pittsburgh’s former mayors, the students observed pre-digitized copies of city laws. Members of O’Connor’s staff greeted the students and described the efforts of the legislative branch. Finally, O’Connor arrived and listened as the kids recited prepared remarks.
“Councilman O’Connor … Davis Park was recently redone. The courts are smooth and fresh, and the equipment was repainted. It is truly a beautiful place. The only problem is that there arena restroom facilities. When a family goes to play, the amount of time they can spend there is limited. If there are preschool kids in the family, sometimes they have to leave a few minutes after they come,” said one student.
Upon concluding their presentation, the students presented O’Connor with the stacks of signatures.
“Now I have a big job ahead of me today,” O’Connor said.
He informed the students that he would talk to the Department of Public Works and Parks director, write a letter and see if a bathroom could be installed.
He also explained that often in government, compromise must be reached, and perhaps the solution might be a portable toilet, similar to those in Frick Park.
Following the meeting, the students recited the Pledge of Allegiance and introduced themselves to other councilmembers.
O’Connor and his staff noted the students’ work.
Judy Trombetta, O’Connor’s chief of staff, stated, “It is important to usto have constituents involved in the legislative process.”
O’Connor agreed: “It is great because they understand what we do and how it impacts their lives. The kids get to learn about their city and make a difference.”
The students thanked O’Connor and members of the City Council and returned to Squirrel Hill. On the bus ridgeback, Ella Ziff, Hillel Academy’s director of special services for grades kindergarten through 12, praised the exercise. “The students were part of the planning process,” she said.
In projects like these, Ziff added, “kids discover for themselves that it’s the experience. They see the concrete come to life.”
(Adam Reinherz, who writes about life in Jewish Pittsburgh, can be reached at email@example.com.)