Back in 1994, Terrie Suica-Reed’s life changed when she met a young man facing a challenging situation. That young man became the inspiration to create an organization to help students just like him — and PHASE 4 Learning Center was born.
“From that one young boy who was in 6th grade at the time; he’s now 35 and is a site director for me in East Liberty,” said Suica-Reed, President and CEO of PHASE 4. That young man has grown up right along with the organization, which began in Pittsburgh and has expanded statewide to help more than 1,000 students annually.
“That’s the core foundation of PHASE 4 ... to build relationships with the people that we serve,” Suica-Reed explained. “They’ve got to know that we care because we truly do. We believe in them even before they can believe in themselves.”
PHASE 4 Learning Center is a community-based, non-profit corporation approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to provide alternative education and is a partner of Partner4Work. With $1.4 million in Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funds through Partner4Work, PHASE 4 will help 250 young people ages 16-24 who have dropped out of school get a high school diploma. PHASE 4 is one of the most successful programs in the country. “This is not a GED program,” Suica-Reed said. “Young adults earn their high school diploma, and then we help them with their career path and choices.”
PHASE 4's mission is to provide an exceptional education for at-risk individuals to graduate prepared to become caring and contributing members of the community. The program has been going strong for 14 years and currently operates year-round in locations in East Liberty and Brentwood, helping students focus on academics and a future path to employment, higher education or the military. Suica-Reed explains, “We do a personalized learning plan for every student academically, socially, behaviorally, and for future interests so that the staff can best prepare them for life after graduation. Then we also follow up with them officially for one full year after graduation.”
PHASE 4 started its first center in West Mifflin in 2003, serving just six students. Since then, it has grown across Pennsylvania, enrolling more than 11,000 at-risk individuals who were targeted to drop out of high school. PHASE 4 has maintained a 98 percent graduation rate since its inception, with 40 percent planning to attend college or post-secondary training, 50 percent directly entering the job market, and 10 percent of graduates choosing to serve in the military.
Josh Stewart, PHASE 4 Learn and Earn Program Director, works with students beyond the academics. “A lot of days you have to meet some of their basic needs before you can get started on academics,” Stewart said. “These kids come in hungry or wondering where they’re going to sleep at night. Education and academics are a big part of what we do, but equally important is building relationships, providing mentoring, having a counselor on staff, and meeting the basic needs of the kids so they can actually focus on academics.”
“Day to day we make them feel welcome and that it’s a secure place to come,” said Gina Monardo, caseworker. “We build relationships where they didn’t have that back in their previous schools. We help with their college applications, how to do the SATs, trade schools, and we also work with the Energy Innovation Center in trying to get them into a union job if they are over 18 and if they have a driver’s license.”
Suica-Reed credits her staff for students’ success.
“Pittsburgh has one of the greatest resources in PHASE 4 because we truly do build long lasting relationships with the individuals and their families so that we’re always here for them,” she said. “They always come back to home base even after they’re graduated or are in college or the military or wherever. They always stay in touch with the people at PHASE 4.”
Stewart stays in touch with one former student who had run out of options after being expelled from other schools.
“We were the last resort to reach him,” Stewart said. “He was very confrontational at first, so I stayed friendly and nice, but persisted. The following school year he came up to me and told me his father had passed away and how devastated he was. After that, we formed this bond.
“I’d make sure he had food every day, and my door was always open for him to talk to me. I had this student for four years and at graduation, he just broke down and cried and (said) that no one ever gave him a chance and that if it weren’t for us, he wouldn’t have a high school diploma. We still keep in touch and he’s living in Las Vegas with two jobs and is a very productive member of society.”
Monardo said one former student told her if it weren’t for her calling him every day and nagging him about school, he wouldn’t have graduated.
“I picked him up for field trips and made sure he had food. I wanted to make sure he was successful,” she recalled. “I never teared up at graduation as much as I did with this one student this year. I saw him at a gas station, and he gave me a hug and said he tells people about me every day. He says that if it weren’t for me, he wouldn’t have a full time job at Pitt and have his OSHA certificate,” she said. “Stories like this — this is why I come to work every day.”