Project Succeed helps propel Castle Shannon woman, 72, to high school graduation

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Eileen Shields of Castle Shannon has attended the high school graduations of her three daughters, a son and several grandchildren.

In June, those family members will get to attend her high school graduation at Keystone Oaks High School.

Mrs. Shields, 72, a widow and two-time breast cancer survivor, is among the 90 students who will earn their high school degrees this year through Project Succeed, an alternative school and diploma retrieval program that has operated at Keystone Oaks for 25 years.

"I'm proud of myself and really glad that I did this," said Mrs. Shields, who was forced to drop out of the former St. Paul Cathedral Catholic High School in Oakland in 10th grade when her mother fell ill and, as the oldest daughter, she became the family's caretaker.

On Friday, Mrs. Shields will attend Project Succeed's 25th anniversary celebration, which will be held in the middle school cafeteria for graduates, staff and supporters of the program. Project Succeed director Joel Vanucci, a retired Keystone Oaks dean of students and guidance counselor, said this year's graduating class will bring to more than 2,000 the number of students who have received their degrees through the program.

Mr. Vanucci started the program in 1988, when, as dean of students, he noticed a large number of students were dropping out. He continued to operate it after he retired from the district in 2008. The program has a staff of six part-time teachers who hold classes Monday through Thursday evenings.

While the majority of Project Succeed students are traditional-aged high school students or just beyond those years, there have been some, like Mrs. Shields, who have returned decades later to get the degree they never attained, but never stopped having regrets about.

"It came back to me every time I filled out a job application and I had to put down that I didn't have a degree," she said.

Mr. Vanucci said the oldest graduate of the program was 75 and that there have been two sets of mothers and daughters who graduated together and one father-son graduation duo.

For Mrs. Shields, the spark to finally finish her degree was ignited last June as she watched her grandson receive his diploma from Keystone Oaks. At the ceremony she mentioned to her daughter that she never got to walk in a commencement line or receive her diploma.

Coincidentally, her daughter ran into Mr. Vanucci a short time later and asked him about the students he had accompanied at her son's Keystone Oaks graduation. He said they were the Project Succeed graduates and when he explained the program to her, she realized it would be perfect for her mother. She set up an appointment with Mr. Vanucci, who convinced Mrs. Shields it was never too late to get her degree.

So in August, she started to attend classes at Keystone Oaks High School, along with a group of high school-aged students and one other adult female in her 30s. She attended English, math, social studies and science classes and even gave a PowerPoint presentation on career opportunities for her senior project.

"I was a little surprised when they handed me a calculator for math class. I said 'I do things with paper and pencil.' They had to teach me how to use a calculator," she said.

She was also surprised at the amount of work she had to complete outside of the classroom. "It was a lot of homework, but once I decided to do it, I was determined to get through it. I worked hard," she said. "Now I can say to myself, 'I did it!' And the next time I fill out an application, I can put down that I graduated in 2013."

Mrs. Shields said she was encouraged by the support she got from the Project Succeed staff. That sentiment was echoed by younger students, including Jeremy Peters, 19, and John Washko, 18, both of Brentwood. Truancy issues brought Jeremy to Project Succeed, while behavior issues brought John.

Both said they were happy with Project Succeed because there is less "drama" than at their traditional high school and more personalized support. "If you miss just one assignment, Mr. Vanucci is asking why," John said.

Mr. Vanucci said he works at keeping the drama often associated with a traditional high school out of his program. "There is no social media. We don't worry about any of that stuff. They know when they come to my classes their cell phones are off and their focus is coming to class and getting the work done," he said.

Jeremy and John said they enjoy attending classes at night, taking only those courses required to graduate, and working during the day. Both said they work nearly full-time at local restaurants. Both also said they appreciated getting a second chance at earning their high school diplomas and plan to graduate with their class at Brentwood High School. Both are considering attending a culinary arts school.

Though Jeremy missed numerous days at Brentwood High School, he said he has had perfect attendance at the Project Succeed classes. Mr. Vanucci said the attendance rate among his students is 98 percent, the retention rate 95 percent, and that 68 of the 90 graduates this year will attend some type of post-secondary education.

Most students in the program attend at no charge because their home districts are among seven that pay a $12,000 annual fee to support the program. Those districts are Brentwood, Carlynton, Chartiers Valley, Montour, Moon Area, Quaker Valley and South Fayette. Next year the West Allegheny and Mt. Lebanon school districts will join the consortium.

Keystone Oaks, also part of the consortium, provides the classroom space, materials and equipment for the program.

Program costs are also covered by grant money that Mr. Vanucci receives from the Laurel, Grable and Eden Hall foundations. The combined total from the foundations, who are longtime supporters, was $23,000.

Mr. Vanucci said he's hoping for that support to continue as he has a waiting list of students for next school year.

Dominic Woods, 40, an American history teacher at Wilkinsburg High School, is a graduate of Project Succeed and credits the program and Mr. Vanucci for his decision to become a teacher. "I was thrown out of school because of my behavior. I was thrown out of Brashear and Carrick, and then I heard about Project Succeed and enrolled. It changed my life," Mr. Woods said.

"From there I went to CCAC and then to Duquesne, and now I am a class and a half away from a master's degree," he said.

In Mr. Vanucci, he said he found "someone who finally listened to me instead of looking at what I had done. He gave me an open, clean slate. Joel didn't have any preconceived notion about me. I never had that kind of support," Mr. Wood said. "Without Project Succeed, I'd either be dead or in jail."

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Mary Niederberger: or 412-263-1590.


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