Pittsburgh-area schools for troubled youth teetering

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A steep enrollment drop and corresponding tuition increase at Parkway West Career and Technology's Alternative Center for Education in North Fayette over the past two years is threatening the future of the school, which has served disruptive and troubled students since 1989.

The board of the school, made up of representatives of 12 school districts, was poised last week to consider a motion to close the program, which currently serves about 44 students from 11 districts. But a large crowd of current and former students and parents urged the board to reconsider, and the board postponed its vote until January.

Attendees told the board success stories about students who failed to thrive in their home districts but went on to graduate and continue their education or entered the workforce after completing their high school degrees at ACE.

It's unclear if the two-month delay on the vote will be enough to save the school. Neither board president Joyce Snell of Montour nor vice president Angela Petersen of Upper St. Clair could be reached for comment.

If the program is closed, it would follow a similar action taken by the board of A.W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless, which in March voted to close its alternative school because of declining enrollment after three decades of operation. Average enrollment there had dropped from 61 students in 2006-07 to 33 in 2011-12.

The ACE program has seen enrollment decline from 78 in 2009-10 to 44 this year.

In addition, the Boyce Campus Middle College High School in Monroeville is not certain of its future following the pullout of one of its founding districts, Woodland Hills, and the recent refusal by the school board in Plum, another founding district, to allow the school to convert to a charter school. While enrollment is not dropping at the school, the three remaining districts that support it, Plum, Gateway and Penn Hills, are uncertain they can continue to do so.

Joseph Clapper, superintendent of the Quaker Valley School District and superintendent of record this year for Parkway West, said the high tuition at ACE is a concern for superintendents in all of the districts in the consortium that operates it. Those districts are Carlynton, Chartiers Valley, Cornell, Keystone Oaks, Montour, Moon, Mt. Lebanon, Quaker Valley, South Fayette, Sto-Rox, Upper St. Clair and West Allegheny.

Keystone Oaks pulled out of the ACE program several years ago when it started its own in-house alternative school and other districts have sent fewer students in recent years.

Mr. Clapper said his district will likely discuss the possibility of pulling out of the program as well since tuition for Quaker Valley students at ACE has risen to $17,000 annually.

In addition, the Mt. Lebanon school board will discuss its future participation in the ACE program in the coming weeks, said board president Josephine Posti.

If either or both of the districts pulls out, tuition will increase even more.

"I want to make it clear this is not about the quality of the program over there. This is about lower enrollment and higher tuition," Mr. Clapper said.

Jack Highfield, director of Parkway West, said the ACE program is caught in a destructive cycle: As enrollment decreases, tuition increases, which prompts more enrollment losses.

Mr. Clapper said that decreases in state funding in recent years have forced superintendents to review all expenses and alternative education is one of the items under the microscope since there are a variety of programs with varying costs.

He said he has students placed in other alternative programs, including one run by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in McKees Rocks and another operated by Keystone Oaks, that have significantly lower tuition than ACE.

According to state Department of Education guidelines, students in grades 6-12 may be referred to alternative education programs for disruptive behavior or truancy or use of controlled substances on school property or any other conduct that could result in suspension or expulsion. Alternative programs must provide at least 20 hours of academic instruction per week and operate five days a week.

Decisions are to be made on a case-by-case basis on whether students are to return to a district's regular classes.

Mr. Clapper said he believes one of the reasons enrollment has declined at alternative centers such as Beattie and Parkway West is that more districts, including Keystone Oaks and Bethel Park, are operating in-house alternatives and opening spaces for neighboring districts. In addition, some students may be choosing cyber school education over alternative schools.

Bethel Park has operated its alternative program for about 12 years, said spokeswoman Vicki Flotta. It offers spaces to students from Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon as well and currently has 20 students enrolled, two from Upper St. Clair.

For all of 2011-12, it served 30 to 50 students. The program runs Monday through Friday from 2:30-7 p.m. at Bethel Park High School and mainly uses staff from the high school who receive additional stipends.

The enrollment is fluid because students are able to earn their way back into the district's regular classes. "The bottom line is you will be in there for a minimum of a semester but our goal is to transition them back to the regular classroom," Mrs. Flotta said.

The possible closing of the ACE program has distressed Emma Pasekoff, 20, a graduate. Ms. Pasekoff, who said she found success at ACE after struggling through ninth grade at Mt. Lebanon High School, started a Facebook page aimed at saving the program and urging people to attend the recent Parkway West board meeting.

"I had fallen so far beneath the cracks at Mt. Lebanon, and there were many other kids like that, and ACE saved us," said Ms. Pasekoff, who lives in Sewickley, where she manages a coffee shop.

She's hoping somehow to generate enough interest in the program among school districts before the January vote to keep it open for others who find themselves in the same situation.

"Going there really saved my life," she said.

education - region - neigh_west

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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