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The Neighborhood Academy Lifts Students with a New School, Visit from ‘Hidden Figures’ Author

September 14, 2017

By Chris Maggio

For 16 years, The Neighborhood Academy in Stanton Heights has guided at-risk youth toward college, and 2017 promises to be another landmark year with the opening of a middle school and a visit from Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures.

The Academy opened Sept. 12, 2001 in a renovated industrial laundry building in Garfield. It was originally for grades eight and nine. The school’s origins go back to 1993 when Josephine Moore founded the Larimer Avenue Youth Club. With the help of The Reverend Thomas Johnson, the club became a summer-skill-building program for teens. With the aid of multiple organizations, many of which still support the Academy, the pair expanded the program into a year-round school. Construction began on the current campus in summer 2010, and it opened 2011.

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Today, the Academy boasts a 100% college acceptance rate. Eighty-nine percent of alum are employed in finance, healthcare, and education. Fifty-seven percent graduated college in five years or less. Academy employees are working to increase college graduation rates by providing gap money not included in regular financial aid.

The Academy’s enrollment jumped from 77 students in 2016 to 139 this year. Increased outreach at churches and on WAMO 100 helped as did the connections made through new board-member and former Allegheny County Councilwoman Brenda Frazier.

However, 31 of those students are sixth- and seventh-graders attending the newly opened all-boys middle school. The numbers on its website speak to the need for such a facility: “graduation rates for African-American males are 59% and 16% for high school and college, respectively.”

“The more time we have with the kids, the more opportunity we have to get them ready and prepared for college,” President Mark Kurtzrock said. He was a board member since before the school’s founding and became president Sept. 1, 2016. His experience includes time in various tech industries around Pittsburgh, and he was formerly president and CEO of his own company, Metis Secure Solutions.

The middle school emphasizes STEM education down to the building’s architecture. Classrooms ring the school’s circumference, and they open to a makerspace equipped with tables, stools, and whiteboards.

“It allows the young men to collaborate,” Sheila Rawlings, director of development, said. “It’s more than just the success of them, but the success of the group.”

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The high schoolers have plenty of cool resources too. PricewaterhouseCoopers donated a stock ticker; students will be managing a portfolio this year. The high school also includes a science lab donated by the Lanxess Corporation.

The Academy is a partner with Comcast’s Internet Essentials, which provides low-cost internet to families. The school’s technology director, Jonathan DeBor, encouraged the program to parents. Many took advantage of it, for 10th-graders receive Google Chromebooks that they keep through high school and, for a one-time $60 fee to cover upgrades and insurance, into college.

The Academy is private, but every student receives scholarship money. Admission is based on academics and need. The curriculum includes not only STEM but also the humanities, and class sizes are one teacher for every 10 students if not fewer. Sports and community service are part of the programming as well as daily advisory periods to help with time management and emotional growth. Travel opportunities are available too with destinations as close as Philadelphia and as far as Italy.

“Getting them into college is one challenge,” Kurtzrock said. “Keeping them there or ensuring that they have the skill set to be able to make it through college is an important part of the curriculum and services that we provide.”

Because it is a private school, it can hold chapel service. The service is non-denominational, and speakers from different faiths have visited. At chapel, the students share prayer concerns.

Rawlings described the sharing as “a very moving part of the morning service. You find out things the students are concerned about. It’s really an opportunity to lay it down and share what they are going through.”

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In addition to faith leaders, the school has welcomed many authors, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. This year, Shetterly will speak at 7 p.m. Tues., Sept. 26. She will visit the students the following morning. Because summer programming is a key component of the curriculum, they will have read Hidden Figures, her nonfiction book about the female, African-American Human Computers who helped NASA during the Space Race. They will have watched the movie adaptation too.

Kurtzrock noted it’s easier to attend college if “you were raised in an environment where higher education was always in your future.” The Neighborhood Academy is that environment for many students, and as it begins its 17th year, it will continue to reach more children who might not have had that educational space otherwise.