Keystone Educational Center in West Salem Township was the state's first charter school.

When Karina Glaister enrolled in Keystone Education Center because she was failing ninth grade in her home school district, she didn’t think she’d like it.

“I hated the idea. I never changed schools before,” she said.

Karina, 16, who’s now a junior, said she’s now thinking about attending college after high school, something she wouldn’t have been able to do without Keystone.

“I made it from failing to good grades and president of student council,” Karina said.

Karina’s pride about her accomplishments made Mike Gentile smile. Gentile, chief executive officer of West Salem Township-based Keystone, said he’s glad the school has been able to help countless students like Karina since its opening 10 years ago.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than a student who’s been successful,” Gentile said in his office while he reflected on Keystone’s past, present and future.

Keystone has partnerships with about 40 school districts in western Pennsylvania and was founded in 1997 by Gentile’s father Jim, who is also the president.

The first charter school in Pennsylvania, Keystone offers an alternative education for at-risk students in grades six through 12 at two locations in the township.

At-risk students are those who function better in smaller classes, need more structure or discipline, have attendance or behavior problems or lack a positive school experience, he said.

“That doesn’t mean they’re bad kids. It’s tough to sell that to the public,” Gentile said, adding the public often has the misconception that Keystone is full of troublemakers.

Gentile has worked hard to improve Keystone’s reputation, and it’s paid off. There is now a waiting list of 50 students who want to enroll in the high school and the number of graduates has grown from eight in 1998 to 52 this past school year.

“Our numbers continue to grow,” he said.

Gentile credits the increase of Keystone graduates with the school’s friendly and close-knit atmosphere. The school is like any public high school in most ways, with students starting their day in homeroom. However, the classes are much smaller.

“Fifteen students to one teacher is too big for us,” said Matt Nelson, the high school’s principal and director of education.

Most classes have 10 students, allowing teachers to give individual attention to those who need it. The faculty is very involved with each student’s education to ensure they understand everything that’s being taught, Nelson said.

That individual attention is what attracted the Rudolph family to Keystone. Bill and Mary Rudolph’s sons Seth and Tom were enrolled in Keystone because they were having trouble focusing in their home school district. If it wasn’t for Keystone, they probably would have dropped out of high school, Rudolph said.

“We chose to bring our kids here. They teach them responsibility for their actions here. There’s more rewards for their good deeds,” Rudolph said.

The Rudolphs also enrolled their daughter Misty, 17, in Keystone because she had poor grades. She’s now on the honor roll, Rudolph said proudly. Seth is in the U.S. Navy and Tom works for a salvage yard in Sharon.

Alice Haun, whose granddaughter Heather Kincaid is a junior at Keystone, was pleased to hear of the Rudolph family’s successes. Heather started having trouble paying attention in school when her mother died nine years ago and Keystone turned her life around.

“She has a whole different outlook on life,” Ms. Haun said.

Heather, 16, is on the honor roll and is excited to go to school, mostly because the staff and faculty spend time with the students and listen to their problems or concerns, Ms. Haun said.

The family-like environment is what graduate Shawn Starkey remembers the most about attending Keystone.

“I knew I was going to a place where people cared. When I was here, I felt like I was with family,” said Starkey, 25, who graduated in 2000.

Starkey enrolled in Keystone in ninth grade when he was expelled from his home school district. His only options were to drop out of school entirely or go to Keystone, he said. He thought Keystone was going to be a tough place with a lot of discipline, but he quickly learned the school is all about getting students on the right path.

“They taught me to be a man. Society looks at Keystone totally different. It’s a school that’s helping kids who need help,” Starkey said.

The teachers kept him in line and got him interested in learning, something he was able to apply to life after Keystone. Starkey now works for the Midwestern Intermediate Unit IV as a computer technician, visiting local school districts that need assistance.

Starkey also visits Keystone when he gets the chance because the school has helped him become the person he is today.

In 2005, he beat nasopharyngeal cancer, a tumor that grew in the top of his throat, with the support of the Keystone staff.

“Everybody here means a lot to me,” Starkey said.

Like Starkey, senior Byron Moss enrolled in Keystone expecting a too-strict environment. It wasn’t like that at all and Moss, 19, said he’s glad he came to Keystone.

“I just grew up. I look at things different now. It taught me how to calm down,” said Moss, who was always distracted during lessons in his home school district.

Moss said he probably would have dropped out of high school if he weren’t at Keystone. His grades have improved dramatically and he has more positive energy, Gentile said.

“Byron used to be a follower and now he’s a leader,” Gentile said.

Moss said the teachers are always available if a student has problems at home or school and have taught him to “never give up because there’s something better in the future.”

Moss wants to teach physical education at Keystone, which is motivation for him to work harder as he nears graduation.

Gentile is proud to report that many graduates go on to work or attend school in local communities. Others have made it to graduate school, technical and trade schools, the military and even prestigious art and music institutes.

“We have given students opportunities to go on and have success in the real world, opportunities they may not have had otherwise,” Gentile said.

When Keystone students graduate, Gentile leaves them with the same message they received when they enrolled because it can be applied to all parts of their lives.

“Attitude is everything, people will treat you how you act and you have to help yourself,” he said.

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