Future uncertain for alternative high school in suburbs east of Pittsburgh

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Inna Ulyanyuk spent ninth grade at Plum Senior High School but quickly grew tired of cliques and the day-to-day drama of a large public high school.

Then she heard from a friend about the Boyce Campus Middle College High School, an alternative school with a smaller enrollment and the opportunity to take college classes while still in high school, and she jumped at the chance to attend.

Now a junior, Inna, 16, has completed five college courses while attending the middle college high school, located on the Boyce Campus of Community College of Allegheny County in Monroeville.

"The main reason I came was for the college classes and the dual enrollment. But there are also less students here and it's easier to find friends," said Inna, who plans to complete 14 college classes by the time she graduates in 2014.

Founded in 1996 by a consortium of the Gateway, Penn Hills, Plum and Woodland Hills school districts, the alternative school has taught about 180 students a year in grades 10, 11 and 12 who for various reasons did not succeed in the traditional high schools of those districts, but showed potential for academic success. Last year's graduation rate was 97 percent.

However, the school's future now is uncertain following Woodland Hills' withdraw from the consortium in June for budgetary reasons and the Plum school board's decision last week not to endorse a plan created and promoted by the superintendents of the three remaining districts to turn the school into a charter school.

"We are not sure what the future holds for this exact type program," said Robert Reger, acting superintendent of Gateway.

The superintendents had hoped to submit a charter application to the Gateway school board by Thursday, the state's deadline to open a school in the 2013-2014 school year. Gateway would file the charter application because the middle college high school is located in Monroeville, one of two communities that make up the school district. Under state law, local school boards vote on applications for charter schools within their boundaries.

While the charter application would not need the support of all three districts, Penn Hills Superintendent Thomas Washington and Mr. Reger said the plan had been to have all three behind the effort before a charter application was made.

"It was designed to be a partnership. One partner pulled out, so you have to rethink it," Mr. Washington said.

Plum Superintendent Timothy Glasspool said he believes his board rejected the idea because "it was too new and too much too fast." He and the other superintendents said school directors generally see charter schools as competition to their districts, which must pay tuition for students who choose to attend charter schools.

Mr. Washington said the superintendents saw converting the school to a charter as a way to open it up to other districts and to provide an independent funding source to secure its future. He acknowledged that it is unusual to for public school superintendents to support a charter school, but said "challenging times caused for us to think differently."

In the past, each of the four founding districts provided an annual payment and three teachers to the school. In recent years, the annual payment was about $45,000 for each district because the school had accrued a healthy fund balance and used large that money to balance the budget.

But that fund balance is essentially gone after this school year, which means the remaining three districts will see their costs increase, said director Robert Patterson, a retired Penn Hills elementary teacher and administrator.

In addition, when Woodland Hills dropped out, the school lost three of its nine teachers. That means there are few electives offered, although the dual enrollment with the college allows students to take elective classes.

Enrollment this year, without Woodland Hills, dropped to 110, including several students attending on a tuition basis from Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg and Penn-Trafford.

The original plan for converting the school to a charter called for the three superintendents to make the charter application and sit on the governing board of the school. If the charter was granted and the conversion took place, the middle college high school would become a public school that students from any district could attend.

The 80-some page draft charter application called for adding ninth grade to the school, but limiting enrollment to 180 students. One of the biggest draws to the school is the opportunity for students to enroll in college courses at no cost and earn college credits before graduating from high school.

For students like Brandon Diorio, 16, of Gateway, the alternative school is a more peaceful place than his home high school. "There aren't as many bullies and mean kids here," Brandon said. Several other students said the school got them out of drama and chaos in their home districts and allowed them to focus on their work.

"I was having a lot of problems with students being disrespectful to teachers. I was also picked on quite a bit in Penn Hills," said Grant Miller, 15, a sophomore from Penn Hills.

Delvon Randall, 15, a junior and standout on the Gateway High School football team, said he transferred to the school halfway through his sophomore year "because there are less people and I won't get distracted as much."

education - neigh_east

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


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