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City charts path for reopening high school: “We are bringing our kids home”
After 20 turbulent years, Duquesne City School District leaders say they’re positioning the district for success.
“DCSD is a comeback story in the making,” district Superintendent Sue Mariani said. “Like a phoenix, (we are) rising from the ashes.”
After improvements carried out over three years, in fall 2021, seventh-graders, who were being bused to neighboring districts, returned to school in Duquesne — the first time that’s happened in Pennsylvania. Eighth graders will return on Aug. 29 for the fall 2022 semester.
To date, 50 students and counting have enrolled in eighth grade, adding to the 430 and counting enrolled in kindergarten through seventh grades. All students will have the option of attending class in person or through the Duquesne Virtual Academy.
The expansion of services was approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education in early 2022.
“We have heard repeatedly from our parents and families that our community’s children, especially those in elementary and middle grades, should attend school closer to home in Duquesne,” said Mariani. “We couldn’t be prouder at this moment to welcome these students to our school. We are bringing our kids home.”
The district covers two square miles of land along the Monongahela River. Like many other steel towns during this era, Duquesne’s school district thrived in conjunction with its industrial prosperity. Duquesne Works, a steel mill that was part of Carnegie Steel Corporation and later U.S. Steel, was the heart of Duquesne for much of the 20th century, transforming it into a thriving, bustling city with a peak population of 21,396 in 1930.
The mill housed what was then the largest blast furnace in the world, “Dorothy Six.” Bob Dylan’s song “Duquesne Whistle” is dedicated to it.
Citizens still reminisce about the “glory days” of many employment opportunities, fraternal club activities, a thriving business district, multiple church denominations and school and community activities, especially noting the long, rich history of WPIAL and PIAA football, track & field and basketball championships.
But beginning with the decline of heavy industry in the 1960s and 1970s, Duquesne declined and became a striking example of a post-industrial landscape — in 2010, it had fewer residents than it had mill workers in 1948.
In 1991, it was designated a financially distressed municipality.
This decline had serious academic repercussions, and DCSD became known as a “troubled” school system.
In 2007, the school district itself was identified by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as financially distressed and placed under state receivership.
Duquesne High School was forced to close and its students were sent to two neighboring school systems. In 2012, seventh and eighth grade students were also displaced, further diminishing any hope for DCSD’s revival. All remaining students started to receive free breakfasts and lunches.
As of the past few years, however, Duquesne’s school district is charting new territory.
Multiple critical moves in conjunction with new support and resources have helped chart this new path towards lasting success, Mariani said.
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, in 2016, members of the administration and staff began to write STEAM grants to enable the repurposing of old spaces into STEAM-focused classrooms: Creation Station (Pre-K-2), the Boiler Room (grades 3-6) and a Coding and Robotics Lab (all grades). The former elementary library was transformed into a new media center and student studio.
In Fall 2021, in collaboration with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and a PA Smart Grant, a new STEM makerspace for seventh and eighth graders was also created.
Another critical move involved instating a new curriculum aligned to state standards, which includes subjects like artificial intelligence/robotics and world languages, among others. Teachers were also reassigned to different grade levels, Mariani said.
Despite the many challenges, district officials are also making plans to reopen the high school within the next five years. Mariani said the district likely will try to bring in one new grade level at a time until it is again K-12.
The return of seventh- and eighth-grade students marks the return of school-sponsored participation in interscholastic athletics as well. Plans are underway to renovate the district’s field and stadium, happening in two phases from 2022 to 2024.
This “underdog” district has had its share of challenges and struggles. Nevertheless, its members retain a strong sense of pride, community and hope.
“Today, DCSD feels a renewed sense of hope and can see the promise of a brighter future,” said Mariani. “It has not been an easy path but try telling anyone in this school district why they can’t restore what they had and you will likely get a passionate response. They are on a mission to get their kids back!”
Amy George is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor who is currently a master’s student at Carnegie Mellon University. Her work has previously appeared in the Northside Chronicle and the University Times.
Originally published August 16, 2022.