Lataja Sims was sad when she heard Duquesne High School would be closing only months before the start of her senior year. But that feeling subsided once Sims realized she might get a better education somewhere else. The state's Board of Education proposed that students be admitted to West Mifflin Area High School, in the district next door, which offers more classes and has more extra-curricular activities.
But one thing West Mifflin doesn't offer, Sims says, is a welcome mat.
"They just don't want us," says Sims, 16, standing on a Duquesne street corner, blocks away from her now-defunct high school. "West Mifflin is a good school, but it's just the people. We don't want to go where we're not wanted."
The state's Board of Control ordered Duquesne High School to close on June 5. (Students in grades K-8 will remain at Duquesne.) Dwindling enrollment and minimal course offerings made it impossible for officials to keep the high school open.
West Mifflin Area High School is one of a few neighboring districts that might end up housing Duquesne students.
The problem is, no one else seems to want them.
On July 16, the Senate approved legislation enabling state Secretary of Education, Gerald Zahorchak, to reassign roughly 200 Duquesne High School students to nearby districts. At press time, the bill had not yet been approved by the state House of Representatives.
Since Duquesne High School closed in June, legislators from nearby communities have been trying to find alternatives that would keep more Duquesne students at home -- or at least outside of their own district.
Rep. Bill Kortz (D-Dravosburg), whose district includes West Mifflin, backed a proposal presented by West Mifflin school officials earlier this month that sought to keep Duquesne High School open and bus interested Duquesne students to West Mifflin for courses and extra-curricular activities Duquesne doesn't offer. Zahorchak rejected the proposal.
In a June 15 press release, Kortz focused on improving Duquesne High School, rather than seeking out viable options for moving students to neighboring districts.
"It is a very sad day indeed when a school district is unable to provide a quality education for its students," Kortz stated in the press release. "That being said, however, I am not convinced that all options have been fully explored to solve the Duquesne School District problems."
Some West Mifflin parents are concerned about overcrowding, says Kortz's chief of staff, Mark Purcell. But, he says, there are other fears.
"There are some concerns about crime and security," Purcell says. "There have also been concerns about how the children will get along, how they will interact. It's a turf issue, I think."
Robyn Pedesco, public relations coordinator for West Mifflin Area High School, confirms that most parents are concerned about crowding issues and class sizes. Based on last year's enrollment, Pedesco says the average class size at West Mifflin is about 25 students.
But some parents, she says, are worried about school security, too: Unlike Duquesne High School, West Mifflin does not use metal detectors.
In fact, some parents were afraid to let their kids speak about the issue. During a canvas of a West Mifflin neighborhood, a CP reporter spoke with two high schoolers who said their friends were looking for ways to leave the district in case Duquesne students came. The students cited overcrowding and fears that Duquesne schools have "serious gangs down there." But during a subsequent phone call to the teen-agers' parents, CP was warned not to mention the kids' names, expressing concerns about what might happen if "one of those Duquesne kids sees her name and then ends up in the same class."
If and when the House approves the bill to let Zahorchak reassign the Duquesne students, Zahorchak has a plan.
"The idea is to let Duquesne students pick the district they want to go to," says Michael Race, spokesperson for the state's Department of Education. "Whenever possible, we want to put Duquesne students in the district of their choice."
Still, Race finds the fears of some West Mifflin residents to be "concocted. I'm trying to see what is so unsettling about new kids from Duquesne coming in. I have yet to have anyone rationally explain why it would be a big problem.
"We've gotten feedback from people not wanting Duquesne's children in their district, but we're hoping they're in the minority."
Lataja Sims and her friend Larina Carter, 16, say many fears are based on stereotypes. "Duquesne doesn't have any gangs," Carter says. "This is no ghetto city."
Sims attributes West Mifflin's stereotypes of Duquesne to race. According to the 2000 Census, Duquesne's population is 47.7 percent black, while West Mifflin is only 8.8 percent black.
"I think race has a lot to do with it," Sims says. "Lots of parts of West Mifflin are very racist toward us."
That may be an unfair stereotype of West Mifflin, but the end result is many Duquesne kids don't want to be in West Mifflin, either.
"I'm not going to West Mifflin because they said they don't want us," says Duquesne senior Christina Seaton. "If you can't accept where I come from, then I don't want go to your school."
Nae Weal, 16, agrees. "I don't want to go to West Mifflin," she says. "They're thinking I'm going to act a certain way that I'm not."
Some students would prefer to stay in Duquesne, for all its shortcomings -- in part because they know they won't be looked down on. Some simply oppose being moved to West Mifflin; others are against sitting in any classroom that isn't Duquesne's.
"I don't want to leave. Period," says Duquesne senior Tiondra Suiter, standing in a Duquesne High School hallway. "Nobody wants us, so why don't we just stay here? Duquesne is all we know. Why not keep us here and make us better?"
"Just respect I'm from Duquesne," Suiter asks. "What's wrong with Duquesne? It's just another neighborhood."
"I want to stay at Duquesne," agrees Duquesne junior Shavon Stevens. "I've been here my whole life."
Race says keeping Duquesne students where they are isn't acceptable. Dwindling course offerings and extra-curricular activities mean that if Duquesne students want a good education, he says, they need to go elsewhere.
According to the state Department of Education, Duquesne High School offers only four core subject electives (i.e. business math or British literature) compared to 11 offered at West Mifflin and 15 offered at East Allegheny, another neighboring district. Duquesne also has no music classes, and students can only choose between two sports, basketball and football. Each of the four school districts bordering Duquesne's has 12 athletic teams.
"There are a lot of things that Duquesne is missing," Race says. "It's a deficient academic environment. The problem is that they are not getting a full spectrum of opportunities."
Race says school officials have made efforts in the past to keep Duquesne running, but a declining tax base and decreasing enrollment rates make it impossible for them to keep the school open any longer.
"We pursued every option for getting the school back on its feet, but it hasn't worked," he says. "Each year they were just getting by, but getting by and continually making cuts is not serving the kids."
Tempering the animosity between Duquesne and West Mifflin students could become an issue when populations are mixed in the fall. Race says guidance counselors will be available for all students to "help with transitional issues."
And some Duquesne students, despite the animosity from other districts, are optimistic about heading to a school with more classes and activities.
"I'm kind of happy," says Duquesne sophomore Chris Spence. "I want go where there are more people, better sports and more stuff to do. It will help me stay out of trouble. There are more opportunities at any school than Duquesne."
Spence is unfazed by the possibility of encountering hostility from students in other districts. He plans on proving their stereotypes wrong.
"They'll see we are just like them," he says. "I'll get over it, they'll get over it."