PITTSBURGH — The halls of Perry High School trigger the nostalgia of nearly anyone who attended an American high school. Pennants and murals cheering the Commodores line the main hallway. Posters with encouraging sayings are hung outside the classrooms. Showcases exhibit the works of the school’s best artists.
But at the very top of a central stairwell is a sight seemingly so out of place that it halts a stroll down memory lane.
Carved into a gray and white marble countertop, decorated with a potted white orchid in full bloom, are the words “Salon Perry” – pronounced pair-ay – and behind that is the hotel’s brand new cosmetology lab. vocational and technical education from the school, which is a lookalike of any posh salon.
It took years to secure funding and plan for the new facility, which opened in early February, but for Angela Mike, executive director of the Pittsburgh Public Schools Career and Technical Education Division, the concept was born from the decades before, when she was a cosmetology student in the district. then brand new Westinghouse High School lab.
“I remember walking into this lab for the first time and being impressed,” she said. “The teacher hugged me and she was so welcoming, and from that day on my whole life changed in high school. I wanted Perry’s kids to have the same things.
State of the art
Past the marble reception counter, splashes of turquoise on the accent walls and lounge chairs catch your eye. To the right is a full-fledged hair salon, where students practice skills such as haircutting, rolling, and braiding.
To the left is a wall strewn with nails. Each is equipped with its own ventilation that feeds the main HVAC system, in line with new industry standards. The wall they sit against contains several windows that allow students learning in the cosmetology class to be in view of the instructor as she teaches hands-on techniques.
Towards the rear are pedicure chairs with basins that are channeled into the floor, an upgrade from versions that require students to carry tubs of water to and from a sink. In the back corner is a room for facials and skin care and a laundry room, where the students wash towels and their brand new popular uniforms.
Twenty-five new students per year are admitted to the ninth or 10th grade cosmetology program. It allows them to earn at least the 1,250 hours needed to pass the State Board of Cosmetology licensing exam. Everything from uniforms to exam fees to their cosmetology tool “kits” — and classes — are free, saving each student nearly $25,000.
With more than 84 percent of Perry students identified as “economically disadvantaged,” that’s important, but dollars aren’t the only measure of the program’s value, according to Mike.
“It’s not just the money that’s important, but they’re saving that time,” she said. “They’re starting their careers, and they’re able to move into economic mobility and independence before they graduate, and that’s key to all of our district’s career and technology programs,” though , until the opening of the Perry Salon, even that was not enough to fill the cosmetology program.
Pittsburgh Public Schools CTE programs adhere to a “regional model”. Although not all programs are available at all schools, students may be bused to a school for a program for part of their school day or transferred entirely to schools, depending on distance.
Some Pittsburgh public school cosmetology students travel to Westinghouse High School for classes. Ahead of the Perry Show, others were bused to the Oliver High School building, which serves some purpose, like that, despite the school’s closure in 2012.
Interrupting their school day for bus trips to Oliver for classes at an “old” lab resulted in a decrease in cosmetology attendance at Perry.
“That’s the difference: as soon as he moved here, the applications came in,” and the program now has a waiting list, Mike said.
Fifteen-year-old Aniya Smith spent her freshman year at Brashear High School, where she was looking for something she was passionate about. She experienced a course in Russian and computer programming. But at home, braiding her own or her sister’s hair and designing her own snap nails is what really got her excited.
A virtual introduction to CTE programs and a nudge from her mother led her to transfer to Perry High School for the cosmetology program.
Aniya was practicing manicures with another student when she was interviewed by the Post-Gazette. Above them were high ceilings with exposed pipes and ductwork, and below were swirls of color in the floor to separate the hair salon from the nail salon. Both were intentional touches from Mike – a former cosmetologist and cosmetology instructor – to give “that industry feel” to students.
“It actually reminds you of a real salon and makes you feel like you’re actually doing something in a real salon,” she said. “It’s really exciting to do something that you really love, and we can do whatever we imagined doing, whether it’s hair, nails, makeup. And we can do it on top of each other and we learn things we didn’t know.
As Aniya notes, many students enter the cosmetology program with experience. Some, like her partner that day, freshman Bethany Ong, 14, have a natural interest (makeup in her case) that has her practicing with online makeup tutorials in her spare time. Others, like second Marsha Dixon, 15, practice skills, such as culturally significant hair braiding, independently after observing other members of their family or community.
“A lot of them come to class with skills,” Mike said. “What we need to do is hone those skills, improve them and get them licensed so they can go out and make the money they’re worth” – a sentiment driven home by another intentional touch in the laboratory.
Hanging on the wall is a portrait of Madame CJ Walker, an African-American entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist recognized as the first self-made female millionaire by the Guinness Book of World Records. She made her fortune developing hair care products for African American women whom she served in the salon and beauty school she started on Wiley Avenue in the Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
For this first generation of Perry Salon students — drawn from a 78% black student body — this photo recalls the salon’s opening last month when Madame CJ Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’ Leila Bundles, addressed the group remotely. And it’s a reminder of the personalized copies of Bundles’ book, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam CJ Walker,” that each student has received and is reading as part of their coursework.
walk the walk
Before Aniya left her three periods of cosmetology class that day, she voluntarily cleaned her nail station. For her, this also meant laying out the metal tools the next student would need, perfectly parallel to each other.
Corina Bonsall, Perry’s cosmetology instructor, taught the discipline before her concert at the Perry Salon, but never in such a well-appointed space. For her, it makes a difference. “It feels like a living room, so I feel like they take pride and ownership in what they do,” she said.
Bonsall helps spread the sense of pride among its students with monthly “self-care days” when students trade favors – grooming and styling each other’s hair – in part in an attempt to ensure that its future stylists project the look of the profession into their daily lives.
Besides, it’s advertising.
This spring, the Perry Salon will open its doors to students and school staff. Not only will this provide additional practice for students, but also – because under state law, the salon can only charge the cost of the products used – it will create haircuts, colors, braids, manicure services and more.
Shortly thereafter, pending COVID-19 protocols, these benefits will extend to the community at large for one or two days per month. And students will visit homes for the aged to trade practical skills for camaraderie.
“The Perry Salon is more than a fancy name for a theoretical room and CTE boutique: it’s a licensed, fully functioning beauty salon,” said Perry Director Robert Frioni, Ed.D. “This real-world experience gives The Perry Salon the potential to become a focal point of the Perry Traditional Academy and a showcase for the exceptional work of our CTE students.”
“Not just for hairdressing”
Cosmetology students regularly throw around microbiology terms for bacteria and fungi when learning about keeping clients safe. They can name the bones and nerves of the face, discuss the financial aspects of the industry, and they use ratios and fractions – far more than the average person – to create exactly the hair color their clients are hoping for.
The students’ three- or four-year journey from the cosmetology classroom to practicing advanced skills in the salon creates a unique bond with their instructor, a bond that is strengthened by the direct hand she has in helping to their future livelihoods.
“We’ve had them a lot longer than any other teacher would have them, and you can watch them grow,” Bonsall said. “I love that part, the time spent with them.”
But it doesn’t stop inside Perry’s walls. She intentionally frequents her alumni’s salons for her own haircuts and colors. For Mike, the connections continue daily, as she passes by and cheers on a former student’s South Side living room as she takes her daughter to school.
Regular observation of the transformation from student to professional brings home the goal of investing in CTE education: a smooth transition into the labor market and/or post-secondary education.
It comes from looking to the future of the industry with a state-of-the-art laboratory, but just as much, it comes from looking back at the accomplishments of icons such as Madame CJ Walker and the life experience of Mike, whose own education in cosmetology within the Pittsburgh public schools was the first step toward establishing the Perry Salon.
“I come here just to watch the play,” she said. “It’s a dream come true. For me, that’s part of doing my job well, giving back to the kids, and making sure they have the best because they deserve it.
Essie Robinson, 15, front, Cherish Turner, 15, and other Perry Traditional Academy students learn to iron their hair during training February 24, 2022 at the Perry Traditional Academy in the Perry North neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Perry Traditional Academy recently opened a hair salon inside the school, providing professional training for students.
Aniya Smith, 15, left, gives Bethany Ong, 14, a basic manicure.