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Charter school rewards program in Penn Hills extended into new year

Dillon Carr
| Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, 1:18 a.m.
Professional football player Darrin Walls launched his educational initiative, Touchdown for A's, at the Penn Hills Charter School for Entrepreneurship on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. The program will reward students for academic achievements.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Tribune-Review
Professional football player Darrin Walls launched his educational initiative, Touchdown for A's, at the Penn Hills Charter School for Entrepreneurship on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. The program will reward students for academic achievements.

A program introduced in January at Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship to reward student academic achievement will be in place for sixth- through eighth-graders this year.

“It was a fantastic program,” said Terri Williams, school innovation specialist at the school. “It exposed them to knowing they can reach their dreams.”

The Touchdown for A's program was created by Darrin Walls, a Pittsburgh native who is a free agent defensive back in the NFL and most recently played for the Detroit Lions. He has also played for the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Jets. Walls, 29, is a graduate of Woodland Hills High School and the University of Notre Dame.

“He wants to motivate these kids to use tools to reach new heights – that's the whole focus of the program,” said Mike Nattis, the player's business manager.

The program rewarded students in first through seventh grades who improved their grade point averages, or GPAs, by giving them things like electronics, shoes or tickets to sporting events.

The gifts were provided by the Darrin Walls Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on physical fitness and education, mentoring programs, tutoring and community involvement. The nonprofit received a $2,500 grant in February from the NFL Foundation to help support the Touchdown for A's program.

Williams said the program worked: Out of the 55 students who took part, nearly half either maintained their perfect 4.0 GPA or improved their GPA to reach that mark.

“He emphatically challenged students to do their best. There were the 3.7 or 3.8 students, and they pulled their GPAs up. We had middle school students who said ‘I want to get that 4.0,' and they did,” Williams said.

There were 293 students enrolled in grades 1 to 7. School officials said parents were given the choice to enroll their children in the program and she is not disappointed that only 19 percent participated.

“It was the first year, so I'm elated that we had 55 students,” Williams said.

Principal Tamara Allen echoed that sentiment.

“We, just like all schools, are struggling with parent participation. The more parents are involved, the more students get involved. So the numbers are reflective of the parents that chose to be part of the process. Do we want more? Yes. Do we expect more? Yes. Will we get more? Yes.”

Middle school students are the focus of the program in the new school year that started on Monday.

“We want to focus on the kids moving into high school next year,” Nattis said, adding that the ultimate goal is to launch the first-year program in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“(Walls) grew up in the Garfield area … So ultimately we want to help impact that area.”

Through his foundation, Walls also hosts free sports camps and clinics, back to school drives and a scholarship program for youths.

“I just want to push the kids to know that making good grades is more fulfilling once they find out they can do it,” Walls said in January. “If they put in the extra work, they can achieve their goals and making A's won't seem like an arduous task.”

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2325, dcarr@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dillonswriting.

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