Alternative school seeks contract extension with city

Kenneth Huston, community liaison for Specialized Education Services Inc., had the $2.8 million question about students at the city alternative school his firm operates on the North Side.

"If they weren't at Clayton Academy, where would those kids be?" he asked a group of about 20 professionals from about 10 Pittsburgh Public Schools Tuesday.

Clayton Academy officials said they want the school district to extend its contract when it expires at the end of this school year.

The current contract calls for the district to pay the provider $2.8 million a year for up to 250 students in grades 6-12 who have been disruptive in other district schools.

Clayton accepts students who have been truant, have disruptive behaviors, defy authority or have weapon or assault violations. It does not accept special education students.

When the board voted to extend the contract for 2012-13 and 2013-14 in February 2012, school district superintendent Linda Lane said, "And we won't be seeking an extension."

At the time, board members talked about the two-year period giving the district time to develop its own services. District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the district isn't sure what will happen when the contract ends.

The idea behind Clayton is to remove students whose behavior prevents other students from learning in their home schools, give them the supports they need to learn to behave and do well at Clayton and then return them to their home schools.

In 2012-13, Clayton figures show that 116 students were returned to their home schools, with all but 11, who returned to Clayton, making the transition. The figures showed 336 students served in 2012-13. Students typically stay at least a semester.

David Wood, SESI's chief school director, alternative education, said, "I think the outcomes and results are speaking for themselves. The fact is that the kids are doing well there ... I think it's been a very valuable program for the school district."

The firm also has staff in some regular city schools, including Pittsburgh Faison K-5 in Homewood, King PreK-8 on the North Side and Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood. It provided some services last school year and is continuing training at Milliones 6-12, also known as University Prep.

U Prep principal Derrick Hardy told the group the firm established a "clear and common framework" for social interactions in the school and helped make it possible for the school to significantly decrease its suspension rate and increase the teacher perception of the quality of the teaching and learning environment.

At Clayton, students have 21/2 hours of counseling per week, and some also have more intensive therapy from Mercy Behavioral Health, whose staff are at the school three days a week.

Each student has an individualized student plan covering behavior and academics. Daily assemblies and "guided group instruction" sessions reinforce school expectations. Positive supports are used to encourage students to follow rules and encourage their classmates to do likewise.

Twanjai McKamey, an eighth-grader and a member of student government, said she has more respect and maturity at Clayton and finds caring adults who help her with what she faces in life.

"I'm not going through it alone," she said.

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