When the students of Clayton Academy greet you during a guided tour of their school, introducing themselves and shaking your hand, you’d never know you’re in an alternative education school for students who have been removed from their home school for issues including academics, behavior and attendance. You might also be surprised to learn that in October, a student stabbed one of Clayton’s teachers with a pencil and a loaded gun was found in a student’s backpack.

STUDENT OF THE MONTH—Student Chaylece Montel greets Jake Wheatley. (Photo by Gail Manker)

“You could come and say, these were problem kids, but you could be going into a private school here in terms of the atmosphere I felt,” said Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project and co-convener of the Coalition Against Violence. “We always hear negative things about young Black males, but what we have seen today is possibility.”

Thankfully, incidents like those in October have become fewer and farther between since operations at Clayton were turned over to Success Schools Services in April. During the school’s 1st Annual Community Affairs Day on Dec. 5, government representatives, social workers and community leaders were invited to tour the school and see the changes being made.

“We’ve undergone a lot of changes at Clayton Academy over the last few years. Since we’re an alternative education setting, we accept students based on referrals from their home school,” said Steve Bezila, program director. “This is the first year our students are going to be Promise Ready. They can literally leave here in February and be able to go back to their home school and graduate.”

Improvements to the co-ed school for Pittsburgh Public School District students include changes to “intake” procedures, which involve students passing through metal detectors and having their backpacks retained until the end of the school day and coed classrooms that are divided by grade level. Students also receive 14 hours of counseling per month at the high school level and 18 hours at the middle school level.

“We try to extend to their home life as much as possible. We start every morning with an assembly and we end everyday with an assembly. If the day is not going the way we would like, we bring them in, in the afternoon, and try to calm them down,” Bezila said. “We don’t know what happens when they go home. We don’t know what they’re dealing with when they come in, but we try to help them through it.”

While the school’s leaders, Bezila and Principal Howard Bullard, who split operations responsibility between behavior and curriculum, respectively, lead tours of the school, the most powerful testimonials came from students and staff.

“It helped me change my attitude and behavior because before I came here I was a little wild, but being here has helped me,” said Chaylece Montel, who was named student leader of the month in November.

“I don’t want to go back to my home school because I love Clayton Academy,” said Michael Hall, a middle school student. “I get my work done and my teachers care about me.”

“Look at my students; they speak for our academy,” said Terri Williams. “We don’t have to speak because when they come to us and then they leave and go back to their home school, they speak for us.”

The school now boasts an average daily attendance rate of 72 percent, with 86 percent of students passing core subjects. Serving as the event’s keynote speaker to commend Clayton students on their accomplishments and to advocate on their behalf was State Rep. Jake Wheatley.

“We’re in the midst of a very necessary war (for our youth) that we’ve been losing. But the good news is you can jump in at any time. That’s why I was so encouraged to see everyone here,” Wheatley said. “I hope when you leave here you can look at what you’re doing and how that can link with what they’re doing here. I’ve already accepted that I’m adopting Clayton as one of my special schools.”

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