Two alternative schools vie for the same students
There are two alternative education schools at Century III Mall in West Mifflin. One’s happy about it, the other isn’t.
Perhaps it’s appropriate they’re separated by a Foot Locker store where employees wear referee’s outfits.
“It’s not good. There’s not the demand for two schools in the identical same place,” said Morton Stanfield, state director of the Communities in Schools of Pennsylvania, which has operated a school out of the mall since 1999.
He’s angry that the Phase 4 Learning Center, an offshoot of Stanfield’s own school, opened Sept. 2 — by Communities in Schools’ recently fired director, no less. Stanfield said Terrie Suica-Reed, who operated the Communities in Schools for three years, is luring students away from his school with nighttime phone solicitations.
“That is not true. That’s absolutely not true,” Suica-Reed said. For her part, she says there’s enough demand for alternative education programs and she’s merely offering students another choice.
Both school officials said they have about 40 students. Stanfield said Communities in Schools’ fall enrollment is down 10 from last year.
Suica-Reed, who also is the state Department of Education’s Western Pennsylvania representative in alternative education, offered these statistics: the number of state school districts needing alternative education options has risen 12 percent in two years and 430 of the state’s 501 school districts now receive alternative education funding.
“There is obviously a need. There are so many needs out there and students need to learn different approaches,” she said. “With the No Child Left Behind Act, it’s all about choice.”
Suica-Reed said she was fired from Communities in Schools over a philosophical difference with the program’s executives: they wanted part-time teachers, she wanted them full-time.
Encouraged by support from the state and local school districts, she packed up — along with her staff — and acquired space just down the hall from her former employer.
Stanfield disputed Suica-Reed’s account of her firing, but declined to explain further. “There was a restructuring that occurred with three staff people for staff and student accountability,” he said.
Phase 4 now teaches students in grades 9-12 who have some risk factor, such as chronic absenteeism, academic deficiency, family issues or health problems. They’re hoping to expand into the middle school ages, Suica-Reed said. Tuition is $3,600 per student annually.
Ten school boards have approved Phase 4 as a viable alternative schooling option: Brentwood, Clairton, West Jefferson Hills, Elizabeth Forward, Montour, West Allegheny, West Mifflin, South Allegheny, South Park and McKeesport. Duquesne will discuss the school Monday night.
“The program is there so that if we need to place kids there we can,” said West Jefferson Hills Superintendent John P. Lozosky. None of the district’s students is enrolled in the program. “Students that are having trouble may find success through the program.”
The McKeesport School Board this week approved Phase 4 as an option for the district. They now send nine students to Communities in Schools, said Michael B. Brinkos, the district’s director of special education.
“I think that both of them have capable staff. They both seem to have quality curriculum,” Brinkos said. The district currently is studying Phase 4’s Internet-based curriculum. “I think they pretty much are working from the same philosophy.”
But two similar options in the same proximity create a conflict that Stanfield says is dangerous.
“Students are playing one school off on the other school,” Stanfield said. “It’s detrimental to the whole process.”