It has been a rocky road for the Virtuous Academy, a tiny non-denominational Christian school that opened with 11 students in fall 2008 in the basement of the City of Hope Church of the Nazarene in Duquesne, but was forced by finances to close in January 2011.
But a $100,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments, awarded Dec. 21, has breathed new life into the school.
"It is a sigh of relief and a sign that all of the stress and hard work I've been going through since 2008 is paying off," said founder Iyana Tennon, a Duquesne native who has said she is determined to provide an educational alternative for students in her hometown.
Previous Heinz grants to Virtuous Academy totaling $60,000 and other smaller donations from other sources allowed Ms. Tennon to reopen the school in the fall of 2012 with four students in grades 4-6 in space at the Duquesne Business Innovation Center. A month ago, a fifth student enrolled. She has provided scholarship money to all of the students. Since the reopening, Ms. Tennon has been the school's sole teacher, administrator and lunch cook.
Ms. Tennon holds a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Clarion University of Pennsylvania, but is not certified to teach in public schools since she twice failed the state certification test. She does not need the certification to teach in a non-public, non-certified school, which is the classification Virtuous Academy holds with the state Department of Education.
The new grant money will allow her in mid-January to hire a second teacher, who holds a degree in education and state certification.
With another teacher sharing the load, Ms. Tennon will have time to explore funding opportunities and partnerships to help the school grow by recruiting students and providing scholarships.
Part of the funding from the Heinz Endowments was used to conduct a community survey to determine interest in the school. Ms. Tennon said the survey of Duquesne, McKeesport, Clairton and Homestead indicated that parents were interested in the school as an option for their children but were concerned about being able to afford it. Current annual tuition is $5,225.
The $100,000 grant from the Heinz Endowment was provided to Ms. Tennon for start-up costs and to put together a strong board of directors that could work on a sustainable plan for the school, said Doug Root, director of communications for the Heinz Endowments.
He said Ms. Tennon's mission is "in keeping with the goals of the education program with the endowments, which has been to identify at a neighborhood level what the educational needs are in individual communities."
The chairman of Virtuous Academy's new board is Vernon Tipton, a former principal in the McKeesport and Wilkinsburg school districts and the former executive director of the Duquesne City School District in the 2006-2007 school year when the decision was made to close Duquesne High School. The high school students were reassigned to either West Mifflin or East Allegheny school districts, and, this fall the state made the same arrangements for Duquesne students in grades seven and eight.
There is some speculation that students in grades K-6 could also be sent to the neighboring districts in the near future. The Duquesne district was declared in financial recovery by state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis and is currently under the direction of chief recovery officer Paul Long.
Mr. Tipton said he believes that Ms. Tennon's school can play a vital role in Duquesne.
"In order for a community to be viable, a school has to be an important part of that community. The kids should grow up with an elementary school started by someone in that community and who is going to stay there for the long haul," Mr. Tipton said.
Ms. Tennon first opened her school with financial backing from the Church of the Nazarene but later had a falling out with the board of directors it had put in place for the school. She struck out on her own, forming her own board and eventually moving the school to the former Holy Trinity school in Duquesne. But as a non-certified, non-public school, the Virtuous Academy does not qualify for state education funding and Ms. Tennon could not raise enough money to keep the school afloat.
She was forced to close in January 2011, sending the eight students enrolled at the time back to their home public school districts.
After the closing, Ms. Tennon became even more determined to make her dream of a private religious school in Duquesne a reality. So she teamed up with Mr. Tipton, who she learned about through mutual friends, and approached the Heinz Endowments.
A nine-member board from various factions of the community has been created, including former Woodland Hills superintendent Roslynne Wilson, and an application has been approved for Virtuous Academy to qualify for the scholarship funding through the state's Earned Income Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship programs. Mr. Tipton said the next step will be to set up a scholarship organization to seek tax credit donations for scholarships. The hope is to be able to offer those scholarships for fall 2013.
While Ms. Tennon hopes to eventually operate a K-12 school in Duquesne, she plans growth in small steps. For fall 2013, she's hoping to operate with grades 3-7, with 15 students in each grade.
"I just want people to come and see the program and ask questions because now we are on solid ground," Ms. Tennon said. "I think I am a good person to design the program here because I am well aware of the needs and struggles and obstacles in the community."
Mary Niederberger: email@example.com or 412-263-1590.