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00000176-e6f7-dce8-adff-f6f7707e000090.5 WESA's Life of Learning series focuses on learning and education activities, opportunities and challenges in the Greater Pittsburgh area.This multi-year commitment to providing learning-focused news coverage in southwestern Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Grable Foundation.

Alternative School Offers Deeper Connection with Teachers and Mentors for At-Risk Kids

Phase 4 Learning has been referred to by some of its students as the "last chance high school,” but the head of the 6-12 school prefers to think of it as a “best chance school” for success of their students.

Terri Suica Reed created the school to help reach students who may be having trouble in traditional schools.

“The formula is pretty simple, but yet it’s complex as well," Reed said. "It’s all about relationships. Everything about life is about relationships. You build relationships with people and we do that with our students.”

That one-on-one attention helps kids connect and ultimately do better than in larger classroom settings. That was true for Merle Thompson. He was 12 years old when he first met Reed when she was a student teacher in Pittsburgh. He said the individual attention she gave him was life-changing.

“It was hard for me to be able to learn in a setting with a whole bunch of people,” he said. “It was easier for me to have that one-on-one. I never had that one-on-one before; it was always a classroom setting, so once I got the one-on-one, and I didn’t know that I needed that attention, but once I got that attention I knew that’s what I was missing and what I needed. It was a whole new aspect.”

With Reed a mentor and tutor, Thompson went on to finish school and is now a mentor at Phase 4.

Opened in 2003, Phase 4 is approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to provide alternative education services.

“We partner with local school districts and now we are statewide,” Reed said. “We are from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia with six schools. Approximately 80 school districts partner with us and they refer students to us who need additional help, who are at risk of dropping out.”

Those partnerships help school districts boost certain ratings, according to Reed.

“Because the youth who come to us remain a student of that school district yet they go through the programming through Phase 4,” she said, “so they earn their own high school diploma, not a GED, and it’s not a Phase 4 certificate, it is their own high school diploma. So it impacts the graduation rates for the school district; it decreases the dropout rate, and we have a 98 percent graduation rate statewide of our seniors.”

Reed said after gradation 13 percent of the students enter the military, 40 percent go on to higher education and the rest to secure employment.

Phase 4 Learning Centers are in shopping centers because, according to Reed, that’s often where young people congregate and feel comfortable. Funding comes from direct partnerships with school districts, foundation grants and the Pennsylvania Educational Improvement Tax Credits (EITC).