Clayton Academy's troubled students get second chance

Approach makes school a place where problem students can learn

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In sixth- through 12th-grade classrooms throughout the city, these students were so disruptive they made it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn.

At Clayton Academy, they walk quietly through the halls -- single file, with their hands behind their backs -- and sit in classrooms doing their work.

The transformation doesn't happen overnight, and for some it is a work in progress.

But district officials and the outside operator of the North Side alternative school for Pittsburgh Public Schools students say the highly structured environment -- coupled with counseling and small class sizes -- has helped students with behavior problems in regular public schools to do better.

Charles Williams, an eighth-grader who came to Clayton in seventh grade from Pittsburgh Arsenal, said he likes having more structure.

"I couldn't learn in my other school," he said. "I was too distracted."

School district officials are recommending the board extend a contract with the current operator for two years for as much as $2.8 million a year or $11,200 per student for 250 students a year. The board is scheduled to vote on Wednesday.

Clayton now has 130 students -- 68 in middle school and 59 in high school.

In the latest plan, Clayton would not only house the disruptive students but also those who violate the drug, weapon and assault portions of the Code of Student Conduct. Such students currently are sent to the district's Student Achievement Center in Homewood.

The achievement center would continue to provide academic supports for other students in grades 6-12.

The goal at Clayton is to get students ready to return to their home schools, although some choose to stay or go back to Clayton. Usually, they stay for at least a semester; the longest has been about 31/2 years.

Allen Austin, an eighth-grader who came to Clayton as a second-semester sixth-grader from Pittsburgh Mifflin PreK-8, said he wants to stay at Clayton until he starts high school at Pittsburgh Allderdice next school year.

"I learn more here," he said.

The program at Clayton -- which began under a five-year contract with Community Education Partners -- got off to a rocky start in fall 2007. Jan Ripper, district chief of student support services, called it "chaotic."

"We had to figure out why it wasn't working," she said.

The board had agreed to pay CEP $28.5 million over five years for 432 students a year, but enrollment was far below that. By the end of June this year, the district expects CEP payments to total nearly $20 million.

Under the existing contract, CEP in April last year turned the school over to a new wholly owned subsidiary of CEP, called Clayton Academy Management Services, which in turn hired Success Schools to run Clayton.

In addition to Clayton, Success Schools operates six other schools, including four in Philadelphia, one in Washington, D.C., and one in Richmond, Va.

School district solicitor Ira Weiss said the proposal is with Clayton Academy Management Services so that the contract will be considered an extension, thus keeping a memo of understanding permitting nonunion teachers to remain in effect.

Success Schools kept Howard Bullard, former principal of Pittsburgh Schenley High School, as principal of Clayton, which he joined in 2008.

Success Schools added Steve Bezila as program director and Corey Benson as director of operations, both of whom have experience working with troubled students in schools.

All told, 28 full-time employees -- all nonunionized -- work at the school, including 11 teachers, two counselors, two teacher leaders, four team assistants, various support services and administrators. Teachers use the district's curriculum.

Success Schools made significant changes in the Clayton program.

The initial program had separated boys and girls. Some classes were mixed grade levels. There were four 90-minute periods a day and no electives.

The wall built at the entrance to separate boys and girls came down, classes became co-ed and each class became a single grade level. The new program has seven classes a day, including art, health and physical education.

With the new program, Ms. Ripper said, "I see kids that are feeling good about themselves. I see kids that are respected."

Jainaisa Hayden, a 10th grader who left then Pittsburgh Rooney Middle School in seventh grade to come to Clayton, said this year is much better.

She said her attendance last year was "horrible" at Clayton but this year she has been going to school regularly.

"I just like the school, how it is now," she said.

Last week, the district's seven learning environment specialists were invited to visit the school to see if they could learn ideas that could be used elsewhere.

Students new to Clayton begin by studying a peer packet that describes the expected behavior -- which are called norms rather than rules -- at the academy.

There are overall norms -- "Education and the classroom are sacred" -- and norms for particular occasions, such as the lunchroom, where "we thank the lunch personnel."

When a visitor enters a classroom, the class stands up as a sign of respect and designated greeters offer a welcome.

When students violate a norm, other students are supposed to "redirect" them, such as by making a helpful or concerned remark. Violators are to take "ownership" of their mistakes.

The students are given a rating each week, the worst of which is "concern." They can move up to neutral, positive, pledge and then wolves, who are student leaders who wear black polo shirts with a wolves logo instead of the uniform green polo shirts.

In March, the school plans to start a student council for students who earn the higher status of "executive."

In the middle school, students gather at least three times a day for an assembly and twice in the high school.

The assemblies are aimed at encouraging students to show positive behavior throughout the day. As select students and teachers comment on the day, students in the audience applaud or say in unison "good feedback."

At a midday assembly, Mr. Bullard asked why students need to follow the norms. Answers included discipline, manners, responsibility and knowing how to behave when they return to their home school.

"All excellent," said Mr. Bullard, noting the norms provide a "positive" educational atmosphere.

Mr. Bezila told the group, "Finish your day out strong."

The school follows district policy on serious violations -- a student who brought a loaded handgun in a backpack that was inspected in October was sent to Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.

But school officials try to use means other than suspensions when possible because many of the students have been suspended many times without effect. Twelve have been suspended so far this year.

If students are truant, such cases are pursued before the district magistrate. In the first three years, there were 359 citations for truancy, Mr. Bezila said. This school year, there have been about 20, he said.

Attendance has averaged about 80 percent this school year, compared to 60 to 65 percent in the past. Student grades in the first two terms were better this year than those last, as well.

Before a student is placed in Clayton, the home school must document efforts that have been made to try to help the student.

One of the reasons for the academy was to improve the learning environment in other schools.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis -- president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, who has asked the district to consider using the district's own teachers at the school -- said Clayton "has taken some of the pressure off our schools so our teachers can teach."

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955. First Published February 20, 2012 5:00 AM


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