The Chatham University community mourns the loss of Dr. Helen Faison, who passed away on July 16th, and extends our deepest sympathy to Helen’s family and many friends.
Prior to joining the Chatham faculty, Dr. Faison was a trailblazer during her long and distinguished career as an educator and administrator with the Pittsburgh Public School District. In 1968, for example, she became the first woman and first African American to hold a high school principal position in the District. In 1983, as deputy superintendent, she became the District’s then-highest ranking woman.
In 1994, Dr. Faison arrived at then-Chatham College as a Distinguished Professor of Education. Her high educational standards, effective leadership style, and devotion to her students led to her appointment as Chair of Chatham’s Department of Education in 1996. As Department Chair, Dr. Faison secured Pennsylvania Department of Education authorization for expanded teacher certification offerings and for the environmental education, special education, and physics subject areas. A driving force behind the creation of these new programs was the difficulty experienced by the Pittsburgh Public Schools in their recruitment of qualified teachers in such specialties, particularly in physics. In response, Dr. Faison created a groundbreaking physics certification program, in which Chatham certification students were instructed in their physics content area by the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). This collaborative certification program was the first of its kind to be granted in Pennsylvania.
As Chair, she also guided the development of the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program, one of Chatham’s first masters programs. Because of her belief in the importance of integrating technology into urban schools, Dr. Faison implemented a special project to bring instructional technology education to teachers already working in the schools. The Center for Excellence in Technology-Based Teaching and Learning, supported by a grant from the Eden Hall Foundation, provided instructional technology workshops, a resource center, and mini-grants for teachers in urban schools to develop technology-based curricula.
Under Dr. Faison’s leadership, Chatham, in partnership with CMU and the Pittsburgh Public School District, was selected in 1998 as one of only four sites nationwide to receive an implementation grant, which led to the establishment of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute (PTI) at Chatham University. As Director of PTI, Dr. Faison helped make Chatham a leader in supporting and improving Pittsburgh’s public schools. The Institute strengthened teaching and learning in the local schools and, by example and assistance, in schools across the country. The Institute offered seminars in the humanities and sciences led by university faculty members in response to the needs and interests of local school teachers. The faculty and school teachers, or Fellows, worked collegially to explore a variety of topics that Fellows then used to write curriculum units they used in their own classrooms and, potentially, in the classrooms of other teachers. Dr. Faison’s efforts provided 77 seminars to nearly 1000 of these teachers.
Dr. Faison left Chatham during the academic year 1999-2000 to assume temporarily the responsibilities of Interim Superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, becoming the first African American to lead Pittsburgh’s schools. She returned to Chatham and her post as Director of PTI in September 2000. In 2010, Dr. Faison retired after fifteen years as the Director of PTI.
Prior to retiring from Chatham, Dr. Faison participated in a film project of Jessica’s Labyrinth by the late Chatham faculty member Bob Cooley (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjNjmWrptq4). Dr. Faison is the first person to enter and the last person to leave the labyrinth during the piece.
At Chatham’s May 1998 Commencement ceremony, Chatham’s Board of Trustees recognized Dr. Faison for her exceptional service and dedication with the Trustee Distinguished Service Award. In August 2007, shortly after Chatham College had been granted university status, Chatham selected Dr. Faison to receive the first honorary doctorate award to be awarded by Chatham University.