Where are all the students at this Pittsburgh school? Target 11 investigates

PITTSBURGH — There’s a fully-staffed public school that has been ready to go since the beginning of the school year, but there’s one big problem.

For nearly six weeks, the school didn’t have any students.

The district blamed the pandemic, but critics contend that Clayton Academy on Pittsburgh’s North Side — a school for troubled students in grades 6 through 12 in the Pittsburgh Public School district — is a waste of tax dollars.

Teachers and staff have been reporting there every day since the beginning of the school year back in September, but for more than a month, they were missing one very important thing: students.

“In a district that by its own admission is facing significant financial hurdles, putting staff and staffing up a school that is empty doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. To see that kind of waste is troublesome,” said City of Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb.

Clayton Academy is a short-term education program for students with chronic disruptive behavior and because the district shifted to online learning last year in the middle of the pandemic, Clayton didn’t have any carry-over referrals to start this school year so it began the year with no students.

Students eventually started arriving in mid-October but by early November, there were only ten students with a staff of 34 posted on the district website.

Controller Michael Lamb said he understands the “pandemic” dilemma, but he believes teachers and staff could be sent to other schools to help instead of waiting for more students.

“There’s no doubt that Clayton Academy provides a service and a needed service, but at the time it’s not providing that service those resources should be directed to more positive purposes,” said Lamb.

The district declined an on-camera interview.

In a statement, Clayton Principal Rhonda Brown defended the school’s operation. She said the school does not have a set group of students or any way to predict how many students will be referred. And due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said Clayton’s typically low numbers at the start of any school year, declined to no enrollment at the beginning of this school year.

But Brown said staffing levels have remained consistent, so the school is prepared when students arrive. During the time without students, she said, staff renewed certifications in de-escalation and completed instructional planning. Brown added that the low enrollment is a positive, not a negative.

The president of the teachers’ union told Target 11 that she’s pleased with low enrollment as well.

“I’d be thrilled if they wouldn’t have students all year — that’s the ultimate goal for the district I would hope, and our society,” said PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis.

The district also has two other schools that take in troubled students. The Student Achievement Center in Homewood, which is at capacity with 206 students, and Oliver Citywide Academy in Perry South. A district spokesperson dismissed any talk of potential consolidation involving the three schools, because she said the schools take in students with different levels of need and support.

“No one wants to see tax increases, but it is a possibility,” said school board president Sylvia Wilson, at a school board meeting in October.

“Let’s be honest. That’s a ridiculous conversation. The idea of Pittsburgh Public Schools raising taxes right now is just a discussion that shouldn’t even be on the table,” said Controller Lamb.

But now with talk from some board members of the possibility of a tax hike to deal with a $39 million budget deficit, some critics are calling for consolidation and cutbacks in the wake of declining student enrollment.

“There are positions like assistant principals, teachers, paraprofessionals,” said Ronald Joseph, the district’s chief financial officer, who suggested some positions could be cut to save money in a district where he said over the past five years, staff had increased by 14 percent, yet enrollment had dropped 15 percent.

Controller Lamb said the district needs to take a hard look at staffing levels. He said he’s confident the interim superintendent will make the right call.

“I think when you look around the district there are those kinds of issues out there, whether it’s at this school, whether it’s at the central office, there’s a lot of questions about the level of staffing that this district needs,” said Lamb.

During the past six years, Clayton Academy has seen an average enrollment of approximately 70 students, but with only 10 students enrolled now, district sources have suggested to Target 11 that some students from the Achievement Center should be relocated to Clayton, where there’s plenty of room and staff available.