Mistaken identity: charter school battles perception that it’s part of troubled Hill House

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Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – April 11, 2019 

Poetry written by students fills a bulletin board outside the English classroom at the Hill House Passport Academy Charter School in the Hill District.

Photos of this semester’s graduating class of about 50 are displayed nearby, along with posters that promote a student fashion show later this month and the prom that will be held in May on the Gateway Clipper Fleet.

On Monday morning, math and social studies students worked on desktop computers and conferred with their teachers before leaving at lunchtime for jobs and other responsibilities that for some include taking care of their young children.

The 4-year-old academy, located in the basement of the historic Kaufmann Center, provides teens and young adults who had challenges staying in traditional high schools with an opportunity to earn a diploma in a small, nurturing setting.

While enrollment has swelled since Hill House Passport opened in 2014 — it’s currently shopping for a location that would nearly double its space — the school is battling a severe image problem.

It shares a name with the Hill House Association, a financially troubled nonprofit that last week said it plans to dissolve by June.

Adding to its identity problems is that the school leases space in a Hill House-owned building on Centre Avenue — right next to Hill House Association’s headquarters.

Its principal says the school is solvent and has been an independently operated nonprofit since the association helped it obtain a charter.

Since the Hill House Association disclosed its staggering debts and other issues last summer, Jeffrey “Bo” Jackson, principal and chief executive of the school, has been fielding calls daily.

“Are you OK?” and “Are you losing your jobs?” the callers want to know.

“We are constantly explaining to potential families that we are not closing and we will be ready for the next school year,” said Mr. Jackson.

Philip Parr, the school’s board president, said three sites are being considered to house the school as early as this fall: two Downtown and one at the Energy Innovation Center on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District.

“I’m confident we can move forward … and we are well-positioned for a smooth transition,” Mr. Parr said last week during a community meeting where the Hill House Association announced it will soon go out of business.

The Kaufmann Center that houses the school is one of seven properties Hill House Association needs to unload as it winds down its operations.

In some ways, Hill House Passport Academy’s connection with Hill House Association — a social services hub that has operated in the neighborhood for 55 years — has benefited the school, said Mr. Jackson.

“Everybody knows you and knows where you are,” he said.

But as he responds to questions about the school’s long-term viability, “You can only convince people so much over the phone.”

An obvious remedy would be to change the name.

“We are exploring it,” said Mr. Jackson.

To do that, the school needs permission from the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the district with which it is affiliated. Mr. Jackson hopes that will happen “sooner rather than later.”

Current enrollment stands at about 170, and most are students ages 17-21 who dropped out of other schools in the city or surrounding suburbs.

Some are homeless or refused to attend schools in their home districts because of bullying or other emotional support issues, said Mr. Jackson. About 40 percent have special education needs and about 25 percent are single parents.

“Coming from schools where there may be 1,000 to 2,000 students, to a place with 170, they feel a great safety net,” he said.

Many returned as 18- or 19-year-old students after they realized, “I need my diploma to get a better job,” said Mr. Jackson.

Students attend the school for three hours daily, choosing either morning or afternoon sessions to accommodate their work, family and child care schedules.

Staff includes a reading specialist, counselors and a school psychologist to assist students with some of the issues that brought them to the school.

About 50% of the class set to graduate in June will go on to college or trade schools, and the rest will enter the workforce, said Sequala Thomas, student services director. A small percentage will enlist in the military, she said.

Kayarra Wilbon, 19, is on track to graduate in February 2020.

The Homewood resident acknowledged she had intense behavioral problems when she attended Westinghouse Academy 6-12 and an alternative school, both in Homewood.

“I couldn’t deal with my emotions,” said Ms. Wilbon.

She enrolled at Hill House Passport in fall 2017 but stayed for only about two months. “I felt pressure and wasn’t letting myself be a student,” said Ms. Wilbon, who has a job cleaning houses and gets some financial support from her mother.

She stayed in touch with Mr. Jackson mainly via phone texts. “He was very supportive, even if I used foul language,” she said. “I needed a friend and someone to push me.”

By February, she was ready to return.

Now she aims to study social work in college and help children who have behavioral problems.

“I’ll tell them, ‘You don’t want to be out on the street where no one will hire you.’ ’’

 

For more information on Hill House Passport Academy Charter School, visit https://hhpa.k12.com/

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