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Eighth grade to return to Duquesne City School District a decade after it was removed

A Duquesne City School district student works on an assignment.
Duquesne City School District
A Duquesne City School district student works on an assignment.

When Sue Mariani was brought on board in 2018 to lead the Duquesne City School District as superintendent, she had one main charge from the community: Bring back the middle and high school.

The district had been sending its high school students to either West Mifflin or East Allegheny school districts since 2007, because it couldn’t afford to operate the grades. Then in 2012, seventh- and eighth-graders followed.

“It was heartbreaking how it just kind of diminished their hopes and dreams for their school district,” Mariani said of the parents, students and teachers she met with.

She believed she had the staff to bring back at least some of the grades. So she restructured the administrative team, streamlined some business processes and last year brought the seventh-graders back.

Earlier this month she got word from the Pennsylvania State Department of Education that the district could return eighth graders next year. Mariana says around 50 eighth graders have enrolled for the 2022-23 school year. She’s hired two additional teachers for seventh and eighth grade. Depending on future enrollment, the district may have to hire more.

Last year the district saw modest growth in grades outside of seventh; it now serves about 370 students. About 67 percent of them are Black, and nearly 89 percent of all students are considered economically disadvantaged by the state. In contrast, about 59 percent of West Mifflin students are white and 64 percent economically disadvantaged. In East Allegheny, 55 percent of students are white and 63 percent economically disadvantaged

“I think kids also deserve to go to school in their home community and not go to somewhere where there may or may not be a perception of ‘we don’t really want you here,'” Mariani said. “No disrespect to my colleagues in the two school districts, but we know our kids best, and we know what they need and we can provide that support. So it’s just the next step in the journey of really restoring not only the district but [helping] the community as well.”

The next step is to restore the high school, something Mariani says will take time. She says it’s not financially feasible for the district now.

While the district will receive money from the state for the students it teaches, it’s not going to be enough.

“We need to make sure we’re giving the kids an equal, if not better, opportunity for whole child learning," she said. "So it’s not just about reading, writing, math, science and social studies. It’s about electives, band, arts … it’s more than just your basic core courses."

In the meantime, spots will return next year for seventh and eighth grades, something Mariani says the community is excited about. Students will also have access to band and chorus, e-sports, arts and coding labs.

“The ability to cheer for the kids in your home district, I think is something they’re so looking forward to,” she said. “It’s just restoring that very rich tradition that has occurred. ... The number of successful adults that have come out of Duquesne has just been really remarkable.”

Mariani is collaborating with the City of Duquesne in ways that haven’t happened for many years, she said. For example the city is working on its park fields so the school can use them in the spring for baseball and softball.

“That’s been very helpful because it’s not just us on an island trying to do this on our own,” she said. “I can tell you in years past it hasn’t been as collaborative.”

Students in first through eighth grades return to Duquesne classrooms on August 29. Kindergarteners will return August 30.