By the time she reached ninth grade, Emma Pasekoff was already falling through the cracks. The Mt. Lebanon High School teen fell in with the wrong crowd and lost interest in school. She began losing the respect of her parents, who thought she would never graduate.
“I started losing hope for myself. I didn’t care about getting good grades,” said Pasekoff, 20, of Sewickley. “Everything was just immensely deteriorating.”
As a last-ditch effort, the 10th grader decided with her parents and principals to try the Alternative Center for Education, a separate alternative school on the Parkway West Career and Technology Center campus. Pasekoff focused on schoolwork, took up the culinary arts program at Parkway and turned her situation around, going on to graduate from high school.
“I learned respect for myself,” she said. “I would never be where I am now if I hadn’t gone to ACE.”
The Alternative Center for Education is now at risk of being shut down due to low student enrollment. In response, Pasekoff recently started a Facebook page “Saving ACE,” in hopes of saving the school that saved her.
A vote to close the school was set to take place Tuesday night, but the matter was tabled after about 50 supporters--current and past students, and their parents--attended with pleas for the school to remain open.
If approved, five teachers would be furloughed and the closure would affect the 12 school districts that make up Parkway West—Quaker Valley, Moon, Cornell, Mt. Lebanon, Carlynton, Keystone Oaks, Chartiers Valley, South Fayette, Upper Saint Clair, Sto-Rox, Montour, South Fayette and West Allegheny.
Quaker Valley Superintendent Joseph Clapper said district leaders have been voicing their opinions to the school’s joint operating committee, a board of representatives from each district, recommending to close. Clapper, who serves as the superintendent on record, said it’s not about the quality of the program, but rather the cost.
“It seems to be a very quality alternative school and I think the teachers work hard, but in these tough economic times, school districts are making hard choices about expenditures,” Clapper said.
As enrollment decreases, district tuition rates increase. Schools this year are paying in excess of $17,000 per student sent to the alternative school. Add the $6,000 to $7,000 cost of sending that same student to Parkway for a half-day and a school could end up paying $24,000 to educate one student.
“It’s not sustainable. At that tuition rate it’s simply not sustainable for a school district,” Clapper said.
Enrollment has tapered off since 1989, when ACE originally opened. At its peak, Jack Highfield, Parkway director, said the school educated about 80 kids. Only 38 students currently attend in half-day intervals, resulting in only a handful there at a time.
Clapper said the school could function with 80 kids, but not less than half.
“It makes the tuition go through the roof,” he said. “If you only have 20 kids next year, who knows what the tuition will be.”
Cornell has indicated it will stop sending students next year and Keystone Oaks already has its own alternative school. Clapper said some districts are sending students to other alternative schools or creating their own as an affordable alternative.
Quaker Valley sends five students to ACE, three of them seniors. If ACE closes, Clapper said the district would have to look at other alternative schools or contemplate starting their own, too.
Pasekoff believes closing ACE will negatively impact Parkway by eliminating a chunk of vocational students she said wouldn't otherwise attend. She said “it would be a shame to see kids in my situation not have the same opportunities that we had.”
“We’re not the cookie-cutter students. We all have different ways of learning, and ACE really gives that to students,” she said. “Ultimately if they take the alternative school away, there’s going to be more students falling through the cracks.”