Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy has about 100 students. While other private schools “wouldn’t have even opened the doors” to that small class size, one parent says the school’s tuition costs and curriculum make it a valuable asset to the community.

By Emma Folts
Lucy Lane, left, 8, and her mother, Emily, stand for a portrait outside Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy where Lucy is in second grade, on April 25, in their neighborhood of Wilkinsburg. Emily comes to school to volunteer with the school’s cooking club. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Lucy Lane, left, 8, and her mother, Emily, stand for a portrait outside Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy where Lucy is in second grade, on April 25, in their neighborhood of Wilkinsburg. Emily comes to school to volunteer with the school’s cooking club. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Emily Lane’s daughter, Lucy, has only attended Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy for about four months, but she’s seen her become “a totally different child.”

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The family has lived in Wilkinsburg for about six years, but her daughter previously attended a private school in Pittsburgh. She struggled to make friends there, and while Emily appreciated the school’s principal, she didn’t like the large class sizes and lack of diversity.

Emily wanted to make a change for Lucy, who’s in second grade. She turned to Sister Thea Bowman, a small, private K-8 school in Wilkinsburg where her sister has worked for roughly two decades. Her daughter tried out one day of classes and decided she wanted to attend. 

“She feels a lot more confident in the person that she is. She talks about her day – like in the car on the way home, before, she didn’t want to talk,” said Emily, 39, a paralegal. “She’s happy. This was the one thing in her life that she felt she could control, was her school choice, so she made the change.”

The Catholic academy, which serves a student body that’s 90% Black and is named after a religious sister who advanced the rights of Black people in the Catholic Church, is undergoing changes of its own. The school brought on a new principal, David Barr, in August. A longtime Pittsburgh resident, Barr is coming to Sister Thea Bowman after serving as principal in several school districts for about 20 years. 

Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg. (Photos by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

He’s seeking to boost enrollment, revise the school’s curriculum and improve its culture. He wants to provide stability and direction to parents and support to teachers, some of whom he said had been displeased with the prior state of the school. He, like others at the school, envisions Sister Thea Bowman being a “village” in the Wilkinsburg community. It’s a play on the proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.”

“We see our kids eight hours out of the day. In some cases, that’s more than parents get to see them,” Barr said. “We have to not just accept it, but embrace that role of being their village, being their safe place, where they can trust us and feel confident that we’re going to do right by them.”

Sister Thea Bowman second grade students pose in their classroom with principal David Barr. From left, Kingston Harris, Reid Johnson, Nia Samone-Mangan, Jah’na Turman, and David Barr. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

When the school year began in August, there were only about 80 students. “By most Catholic or private school standards, they wouldn’t have even opened the doors,” Barr said. Now, enrollment is up by 30. He’s focused on growing from the bottom up, with the school’s kindergarten classes, keeping in mind the extra expenses that rapid expansion can create. 

Most students who attend Sister Thea Bowman come from outside of Wilkinsburg. Barr attributed that, partly, to parents’ assumptions about tuition and affordability. While some local Catholic schools charge about $5,000 or more for an individual student, Sister Thea Bowman will charge $2,600 for the upcoming school year. Scholarships are available, supported by the Extra Mile Education Foundation, which Barr said can reduce the cost of tuition by half. 

Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

But he also wonders if families in the community realize that the school is even there. The school has advertised locally and expanded its social media presence, and Barr said he plans to ramp up community engagement efforts this summer. 

Within the school and broader community, he’s met with current parents to hear their needs and concerns and has had regular conversations with the Wilkinsburg School District. He hopes the two will work together to promote Wilkinsburg to families and serve the community. “We haven’t had in-depth talks, but it definitely looks like it’s a good partnership moving forward,” Barr said. 

Emily wants Lucy’s schooling to provide her daughter with a safe space to be herself and prepare for high school. So far, she’s seeing results. She appreciates that Barr treats the children as his own, is a visible presence at school events and is working to expand its extracurriculars. She recalled that, before Lucy enrolled, Barr stayed late so the family could go on a tour and ask questions.

Emily Lane pulls up to Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy to pick up her daughter, Lucy, after school on April 25, in their neighborhood of Wilkinsburg. At right, Lane’s sister, Carolyn Perteete, a lead administrator at the school, waits with Lucy. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

To her, Sister Thea Bowman helps meet the needs of families in Wilkinsburg who may otherwise find private school tuition to be too expensive. Overall, she’d like the Wilkinsburg community to have more choices for K-12 education.

“I just want people who live in Wilkinsburg to be able to send their children to school and not worry about if they’re getting a good education, if they can afford the education,” Emily said. 

She doesn’t want people to judge the quality of Sister Thea Bowman’s education based on their perceptions of Wilkinsburg’s circumstances. She believes in the community — she’s neighbors with one of the borough’s former mayors, and they’ve talked about where Wilkinsburg is headed — and she’s found it to be a welcoming, vibrant area.

“When you live here, you see all the good it has to offer,” Emily said. “It’s a great place to raise a family.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at

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Emma is a higher education reporter for PublicSource. In her role, she collaborates with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on strengthening higher education coverage in local communities. Emma...