90.5 WESA Features and Special Reports

Erika Beras / 90.5 WESA

Lynn Lightfoot’s kids have an easy commute to class.

It's down a flight of stairs and onto couches in a room crammed with everything from books to DVD’s to board games. Her teenagers, Aleeshyah and Noah, aren’t just her children — they’re her students. They are two of about 21,000 children who are homeschooled in Pennsylvania.

Alexis Gideon is a multimedia artist who has recently relocated to Pittsburgh. The New Hazlett Theater is a center for collaboration as well as an incubator for new ideas. Together they recently provided Pittsburgh with a unique world premiere event.

"The Crumbling" is a 21-minute stop-motion animation video opera set in a surreal dream-like town following the trials of a librarian as she tries to save her city from crumbling down around her. Much of the music is performed live by Gideon.

Erika Beras / 90.5 WESA

In Jim Seagriff’s classroom at Taylor Allderdice High School, there are a half dozen furnaces and boilers. A small closet area is set up the way a basement would be. Goggle-clad teenagers adjust knobs on mock refrigerators.

These are HVAC students in the Career and Technical Education program.

Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

It’s a conversation heard around countless dinner tables or on the way home. What did you do at school today? The answer most often is nothing or "I don’t know" or "I played."

That one-sided conversation is common in early education students. Parents can try to talk to teachers during the shuffle of picking up their child, but that’s usually only slightly more productive.

Charter schools in the commonwealth have grown rapidly. Over a five year period beginning in 2006, enrollment in the state increased by 54 percent, and according to the most recent data, 6 percent of Pennsylvania students now attend a charter school.

But a study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania at Penn State has found that charter schools are more racially segregated than their public school counterparts. 

dansheadel / flickr

In school we were all taught about the number represented by the symbol π. Our understanding of the number might be a bit foggy, but most of us remember it has something to do with a circle and that it is 3.14.  In reality, the irrational number (by definition) goes on forever, but it starts with 3.141592653. 

For the last several years, the popularity of so-called “Pi Day,” or March 14 (3/14), has been growing in the U.S., and Saturday will mark what many are calling “Super Pi Day,” where we can add the next two digits of the mathematical super number (3/14/15). And if you really want to geek out you can make sure you are near a clock at 9:26:53 a.m. (3/14/15 9:26:53).

Beth Navarro

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the publication of "The Great Gatsby" – the height of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary fame. But a new novel suggests that some of Fitzgerald’s best work came much later, at a time of loss and personal struggle.

Wolf Seeks Billions in Higher Taxes for Schools, Tax Revamp

Mar 3, 2015
Matt Rourke / Associated Press

In an ambitious first budget plan, Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday proposed more than $4 billion in higher taxes on income, sales and natural gas drilling to support new spending on schools and to cut property taxes as part of an effort to overhaul the way public education is funded.

Wolf, a Democrat, is also asking the Republican-controlled Legislature to cut corporate taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars, borrow more than $4 billion to refinance pension debt and inject new money into business loans, clean energy subsidies and water and sewer system projects.

Live Raw Audio: Netanyahu Speech to Congress

Mar 3, 2015

Thank you for listening to NPR on 90.5 WESA. The raw audio of this live event was provided directly from the source. It was not produced or edited, and may have begun or ended outside of the scheduled time.

Bob Studebaker / 90.5 WESA

The organization Global Beats strives to bring together “new” Pittsburghers from all over the world by celebrating the music of Africa, Latin America, New York City, and Cuba.

It’s an idea that began in 1999 when Carla Leininger began her show “The Brazilian Radio Hour” on Carnegie Mellon University’s radio station WRCT.

Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

A high school history teacher at Ellis School in Shadyside is showing his 11th grade students the evolution of racial attitudes in America by exploring how common items have had different meanings for black and white people.

Students speak in the first person and personify one item a week including a typewriter, bus ticket, acoustic guitar, police baton and a flapper dress.

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

After a violent few weeks in the Pittsburgh region, a local labor union is trying something a little bit different to get guns off the streets.

Many cities hold periodic gun buyback programs in which residents can drop off a gun without fear of arrest and get money or gift cards in exchange. With that same theory in mind, Boilermakers Local 154 is launching the “Guns for Opportunity” program. Through it, a firearm can be turned in, and in exchange, an individual will receive free training in the union’s welding program.

In ancient times The Silk Road was a series of trade routes linking east and west. Sun Gate was one of two westernmost stops before leaving China. It is also the name of a CD recorded as part of a unique musical collaboration, which merges ancient Asian melodies with jazz.

The producers feel the collaboration is emblematic of Pittsburgh’s growing diversity.

Harish Saluja, who is the founder of the cultural organization known as Silk Screen, assembled musicians familiar with both traditions and oversaw the process of growth within the band Silk Sound.

Cars assembled by middle schoolers zipped down the 65-foot elevated track lining the wall in less than a second.

The cars moved so quickly, the engineers often had to ask if their car won the race.

The dragster car competition was just one of several events at the Technology Student Association (TSA) regional competition at Pittsburgh Technical Institute. The organization focuses on bringing technology into classrooms and extending that learning after-school. Nearly 400 high school students attended the first day and 200 middle school students on the second day.

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

At a lab in Carnegie Mellon University's Field Robotics Center, dozens of goggle-clad teenage girls are drilling, hammering and writing code.

They’re the Girls of Steel, and the goal is to build the mind and body of a robot in the next few weeks. Then the girls — and their robot — will enter robotics competitions.

"We picked a general overall design to really hashing out the details," said Sophia Lee, a junior at North Allegheny High School, who was drilling two pieces of wood together for an early prototype of the robot. "We know that we want to do this, but how exactly are we going to do, so what mechanisms are we going to use, like what kind of metal are we going to use what kind of parts are we going to use, is it going to actually work so this is basically the practice before we build the actual robot."

Courtesy of Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania

Traditionally, learning in the U.S. has been home to school and back to home.

Educators widely agree different approaches are needed for each generation of learners. They also agree that means learning must occur in all aspect of a student’s life.

With his first year as mayor of Pittsburgh coming to a close, Bill Peduto said the first term was exhausting, but satisfying. He said the job is everything he thought it would be and more, though said there are some surprising aspects, namely having to deal with personnel matters.

“You have 3,500 employees, a certain percent of them are going to have issues with the people they work with and those issues don’t get resolved as you’d think – well a lot of them do – through the directors of personnel, they actually work their way all the way up the food chain,” Peduto said.

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

In June, the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Larimer was awarded a highly competitive $30 million Housing and Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods grant.

The money will go toward building 350 mixed income housing units. But the grant is just one step in a long and ongoing process of turning the neighborhood around.

Larimer is a small neighborhood, and much of it is made up of open space. Blocks are scored with empty lots and vacant houses. Many families moved away for better schools and less crime, leaving behind mainly elderly and low income residents.

Ben Spiegel courtesy of the University of Pittburgh

George McCrary knows the Hill District well. As he drives the windy streets, he points out the places he remembers from his days working as one of the nation's first emergency medical technicians in the late '60s and early '70s.

It was on these streets where a young McCrary was a member of the Freedom House Enterprise Ambulance Service, which served as the model for emergency ambulance medicine.  

Courtesy of Slow Danger

Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight, who create both dance and music as Slow Danger, were drawn to each other’s willingness to explore new ways to interact with their art form.

Beginning with dance, they soon began creating their own music for their performances. Knight said it was inevitable for their art to “merge and intersect in that way.”

"The movement and the music, for us, goes hand in hand,” Knight said.

Thompson and Knight said their intention is to present an ambiguous identity that isn’t Anna, isn’t Taylor, but rather “this otherness that we create through.”

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Leigh Halverson is the deputy chief of staff for economic development in the Peduto administration, and on one wall of her office is a row of pink post it notes, with different dollar amounts written on them.

“$440,000 from the foundations this year to support our Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment,” she says. “$200,000 from the National League of Cities for our Healthy Together campaign … $75,000 for our green and healthy homes initiative.”

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

At Beaver Falls High School, Tim Liller teaches technology education, or the class typically thought of as "shop."

Once a staple of high school education, shop class has fallen by the wayside with the decline of American manufacturing. But here, Liller's students still learn the basics, including how to wire a home and fix small engines. And more recently, they've also been learning how to make solar panels and build hydro and wind generators.

These are skills Liller hopes they can build on when they graduate.

"There are jobs out there, and I don’t know where, but I’m sure kids gain the knowledge here, and if they are interested in it they could probably find a job doing it because they have some base knowledge in how things work," Liller said. 

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

On a recent Thursday morning at the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, eighth graders Tori Hogue and Riley Wolynn are hacking web pages.

It's not "hacking" in the sense that often dominates headlines. The students are using a web program to inspect and manipulate websites, and in the process, learn HTML. 

"The thing is it's only for our eyes to see, so it's not illegal or anything," explains Wolynn, as she shows off her new coding and programming skills.

Courtesy image

With help from artists, geologists, lawyers and others, the Living Waters of Larimer initiative encourages people and government agencies to think of rainwater not as something to be disposed of but as a community asset with aesthetic and economic benefits.

It began in 2013 when environmental artist Betsy Damon had an exhibit at The Mattress Factory Art Museum on Pittsburgh’s North Side. While here she became aware of the work of community activists in the city’s Larimer neighborhood.

Flickr user Jorge Castro

An administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board on Friday issued his decision regarding allegations of labor violations at UPMC. The 123-page document recounts the minute details that led to the discipline or firing of eight workers at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside.

There are 45.3 million Americans living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Poverty affects people from all walks of life, in all areas of the country, but according to several studies, people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender are hit by poverty more often than others.

“I struggle every day,” said Lynn, who lives just outside Pittsburgh. She didn’t want to use her last name. Lynn identifies as lesbian, and she doesn’t work because of a disability. Lynn is also diabetic and living on a very fixed income.

Courtesy photo

Ron Worstell served as an infantryman for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1970.

“I tell everybody that my time in Vietnam of one year at the age of 20 something was really five percent of my life at that time, but that experience is 75 percent of who I am today,” he said.

Courtesy photo

In 1999, Lisa and Sumner Bemis met at a bar during a Penguins hockey game. She was intrigued by his unusual name, “and the fact that he had a Camaro," recalled Lisa.

"I loved muscle cars, " she said, "so it worked.”

Less than three years later they were married. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks happened Sumner was deployed as part of the National Guard and was in Iraq from 2005-2006. When he returned, Lisa was overjoyed to have him back. But she said he was a different person.

Courtesy photo

Tom Jones served aboard amphibious assault ships for the U.S. Navy during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II.

As 18 and 19 year olds, Jones said he thinks he was too young and inexperienced to be scared.

“I think being young at that time, it was just an experience," he said. "You don’t realize exactly what is going on until you get a lot older and reflect back on those situations you were in.”

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

Photographer Duane Michals grew up in McKeesport, but it was a trip to Russia that prompted his foray into photography.

"So going to Russia, I figured I should take pictures, so I borrowed a camera," said Michals. "Though I did take a course in photography, I didn't even own a camera. And I didn't take a light meter because I thought if I owned a light meter that meant I was officially a photographer, and that would have been intimidating ... if I had never gone to Russia, I never would have been a photographer, it literally changed my life."