The Duquesne City School District hasn’t had a high school since 2007.
Could this school year be its last without one?
Students in kindergarten through eighth grade will return from summer break on Wednesday to a school district that has seen a historic rebirth over the past few years.
The district brought back its eighth graders last year and seventh graders a year before that, becoming the first Pennsylvania school system to reopen its middle school after it had been shuttered.
The district shut down its high school in 2007, and middle school in 2012, for the same reasons: long-standing financial and academic problems. The closures devastated the Monongahela Valley community, which owed much of its sense of pride to the district, particularly the success of the high school’s athletic programs.
But things started to change when Sue Mariani was hired as superintendent in 2018 with a directive from the Duquesne community: Restore the school district.
For Mariani, that meant taking the K-6 district she inherited and remaking it into a K-12 system.
“We have not shied around the fact that we want our high school kids back,” Mariani said in an interview in her office earlier this year. “Our parents and the community want us to have our high school kids back. We believe we can provide them with the best education by having our kids back.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. And it’s still unclear exactly when it could happen.
While the 2024-25 school year remains a possibility, district officials aren’t ready to confirm any timeline with so many questions that still need to be answered.
Among the questions: Where would they put the high school students?
Built in 1913, the tan brick building that houses K-8 students doesn’t have enough space for another grade, let alone four. Mariani said the district could rent a space in a nearby community before eventually building its own high school.
Another question: How will the East Allegheny and West Mifflin Area school districts — where Duquesne now sends its high schoolers — react to losing the tuition revenue that those students bring?
“There’s a problem that no one really wants to address, and, that is, if you take your kids back, they’re going to lose a pot of money,” Mariani said. “But yet, it’s doing what’s right for the Duquesne kids. Not what’s right for someone’s budget.”
The West Mifflin Area School District had no comment. Officials from the East Allegheny School District could not be reached.
And, perhaps most importantly: Will the district be able to prove to the state Department of Education that it can change the lives of students academically, socially and emotionally?
It appears as though progress is being made with the state, according to department spokesperson Casey Smith.
Smith said in an email that the department has and will continue to work closely with the district “to ensure that the Duquesne City School District Financial Recovery Plan is effectively implemented by reviewing regular progress reports for transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility.”
“Duquesne City School District applied for a comprehensive planning grant of $215,000 through the New Schools Venture Fund to plan for the reopening of its school with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion; an innovative high school model; academic and career-oriented programming; and community engagement and support,” Smith said.
“The school district was awarded the planning grant along with an $85,000 Grable Foundation grant to hire and name an experienced principal as an integral part of the district’s comprehensive planning process. During the 2023-2024 school year, Duquesne administrators and outside consultants will research, collaborate and develop a plan that will include students and parents/guardians.”
The district has placed a focus on state standards and building a curriculum around it, according to Mariani, rather than just going by the book. A set of standards gives students the flexibility to show mastery or proficiency in different ways, she said.
Duquesne recently added an e-sports arena where students can learn about video game design and compete in tournaments with other school districts. The district has turned multiple areas of the school building into makerspaces, where students can try horticulture, graphic design, coding and more.
The district’s transformation from a time when it was cutting grade levels to where it is now has been incredible, according to K-8 principal Eric Harper, who joined the district as a social-emotional learning coordinator the year after the high school closed.
“Our students didn’t really have the opportunity to tap into a lot of the resources that might have been available outside of Duquesne,” Harper said. “Now, I can say Duquesne is resource rich. We can compare to a lot of the affluent school districts in the region, and the resources they have, we have right here in our facility.”
The growth has spurred a sense of community in Duquesne that the city was missing for more than a decade, he said.
“There’s been a sense of pride reinstilled back here in our district, because we get to address all of our students’ needs as well as a lot of voice and choice here for our students and community,” he said. “We’re always asking what can we do better, we always leave our doors open, we always have community events so that way we try to build a stronger relationship with the families that we serve and the students that we serve.”
Another boost to the community’s pride has been the return of athletics at the middle school level.
Duquesne City High School was one of the few schools in Pennsylvania that could boast both a state football and basketball championship. The school also won 12 WPIAL basketball championships and four WPIAL football championships.
It didn’t take long for the school to find some athletic success, with the football team going 7-0-1 last fall.
“A lot of people are happy that we brought back sports, and that it was actually successful our first year back,” said DiAngelo Mitchell, the district’s athletic director. “People weren’t surprised because they knew we had the athletes who could go out there and play teams like Upper St. Clair.”
Mitchell said he anticipates more success this year for the football team, as well as boys and girls basketball teams and girls volleyball team. He also said the district wants to add a track and field team in the spring to continue to expand its offerings to students.
At the same time that athletics are returning, the district is also working to raise funds to renovate its offsite football stadium. The stadium, located about a mile from the school building, needs to have its bleachers, press box and ticket stand demolished and rebuilt entirely, among other upgrades.
Mariani said Reynolds Bros. Landscaping of Burgettstown has offered to do the demolition free of charge, a $400,000 savings for the district. But the district is still looking at a $12 million project.
The stadium could be a resource for the whole community to use, according to Mariani. She said the district also wants the stadium to include a race track so the district could host regional track and field events in the future.
District officials openly admit their goals are lofty, and many questions must still be answered before those goals become a reality.
But because the district and the community have a shared vision for the future, the question of reopening of Duquesne City High School is more a question of “when” instead of “if,” according to school board member Denise Brownfield.
“I definitely believe it can be done as long as all parties are willing, and from what I see, everyone is willing to make it happen, especially the superintendent,” she said. “I can’t say how much time she’s up at night doing this, but she’s working day and night. And I think with those [work] ethics, you can accomplish anything.”