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University of Pittsburgh


Helen S. Faison

The week before Helen S. Faison graduated from Westinghouse High School, her father died, leaving her an orphan. With the help of church and community, she was given a scholarship, after-school work, a home with a generous family, and enough support for trolley tokens. The quiet, serious student was able to begin her classes at Pitt in the autumn of 1942. The support gave her something else, too—great expectations.

Faison didn’t disappoint. With a sense of duty and a graceful determination, she repaid the debt, blazing a trail of firsts as she became one of the state’s most accomplished educators.

In 1950, joining a small cadre of Black teachers, Faison was hired to teach social studies and English at Fifth Avenue High School in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. A strong believer in public education, she encouraged her students and built a highly respected career. In 1960, she became the school district’s first African American high school guidance counselor; in 1968 she became the district’s first African American and first female academic high school principal. Later, she became a deputy superintendent and the district’s highest-ranking woman. She retired from the public schools in 1993, returning in 1999 for one year as interim school superintendent, making her the first African American to lead the entire school district.

Those long-ago lessons of community continue to resonate and inspire. Faison is now director of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute, a center for enhanced teacher training at Chatham University. The Helen S. Faison Arts Academy, in the community where she grew up, is a tribute to her ongoing legacy.