An independent, progressively themed K–8 school is about to become the newest tenant at Congregation Rodef Shalom.
The Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School, a 430-student school affiliated for nearly 90 years with the University of Pittsburgh, plans to move grades six through eight this coming academic year to Rodef Shalom to “de-densify” its Oakland campus and make social distancing more realistic, officials said. The school recently signed a 10-month lease for 14 classrooms and three offices at the Reform congregation, which sits near the campuses of both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University.
But the two institutions have been tied together, at least in spirit, much longer. The Falk family, which founded the school in the 1930s, attended services at and were vocal supporters of Rodef Shalom and contributed to efforts to expand its Fifth Avenue building. The congregation’s library is named in the family’s honor; a portrait of family matriarch Fanny Edel Falk hangs in the space.
“It’s a nice piece of history and I like that it’s come full circle,” Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno told the Chronicle. “It’s a win-win-win and it’s the right thing to do. I couldn’t be more proud of us being partners with the University of Pittsburgh as we learn about what it means to go about our work under these pandemic conditions.”
About 140 students from the Falk Laboratory School, as well as an assistant school director and several teachers, are slated to be based five days a week at Rodef Shalom, said Jeff Suzik, the school’s director and an associate professor in Pitt’s School of Education. The school year is supposed to begin Aug. 25, with administrators starting earlier in August.
“We really want to be able to serve our community well,” Suzik said, “and provide opportunities if they are achievable, if they are safe.”
Matthew Falcone, a preservationist who serves as senior vice president of Rodef Shalom’s board of trustees, said there are other links between Falk Laboratory School and his congregation, beyond the Falk family links.
“Philosophically, we’re very aligned,” Falcone said. “Ours is progressive in a religious nature. They are in an educational nature. We speak a similar language.”
Conversations between the two organizations started during COVID-19-inspired deep cleaning at Rodef Shalom, which, oddly enough, turned up more information about the Falk family, Falcone said. Congregation staff found a plaque during a clean-up that marked a Rodef Shalom gymnasium and recreational space whose construction the Falks had funded. The space was replaced by classrooms after a Young Men’s Hebrew Association built gymnasium space in nearby Oakland.
“We were kind of going through the talks with Falk School and all this Falk stuff started popping up,” Falcone said. “It’s funny how coincidences overlap.”
Falk Laboratory School, based near the VA Hospital on a hilltop in Oakland, is deemed “progressive” because it was formed during the Progressive Era, when U.S. classrooms were adapting to increasingly industrial, increasingly urban and increasingly immigrant-saturated environments, Suzik said. At one time, there were hundreds of progressive laboratory schools in the U.S.; today, the Falk school is one of only a few dozen.
The school also is noted for its teaching models. Every teacher is shadowed by an apprentice or associate studying to become a teacher, Suzik said.
Students of the Falk Laboratory School, whose families pay tuition for them to attend, come from 42 ZIP codes in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Washington counties, Suzik said. While some ZIP codes only boast one pupil, 15217 — the area that includes Squirrel Hill — accounts for about one-third of the school’s enrollment. A large number of students’ parents also work at the University of Pittsburgh or other East End institutions.
“They are a mix — racially, ethnically, socioeconomically,” Suzik said. “The school welcomes all who apply. It’s open to anybody.”
The school had one big lingering problem as it faced the 2020-’21 school year, Suzik said.
“We are a full, robust community,” Suzik said. “What we needed to do was de-densify … and Rodef Shalom has been so kind and helpful with this.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.