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First Holy Family Academy senior class starts final year

| Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Avian McCray (left) and Bre Harvey, both juniors, hug as they arrive on the first full day of school at Holy Family Academy in Emsworth on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Avian McCray (left) and Bre Harvey, both juniors, hug as they arrive on the first full day of school at Holy Family Academy in Emsworth on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.
Ciara Beck, a junior, is reflected in monitors in Holy Family Academy's new SAIL (Social Action and Integrated Learning) FabLab (Fabrication Laboratory) during a physics class on the first full day of school Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Ciara Beck, a junior, is reflected in monitors in Holy Family Academy's new SAIL (Social Action and Integrated Learning) FabLab (Fabrication Laboratory) during a physics class on the first full day of school Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.
Head of School Lisa Abel-Palmieri greets students on the first full day of school at Holy Family Academy in Emsworth on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Head of School Lisa Abel-Palmieri greets students on the first full day of school at Holy Family Academy in Emsworth on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.

Amanda Jones has known since fourth grade that she someday wanted to be a surgeon.

Yet as a student for the last three years in Holy Family Academy's inaugural class, Jones, 17, of the North Side, has fine -uned her career goals. With internships at UPMC Mercy and Eaton Corp., she now has ambitions of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon.

“It helped open me up to different things. It helped me understand that there's more beyond just being a surgeon,” she said.

Holy Family Academy, an independent Catholic school in Emsworth, opened in 2014 to its first freshman class. The school, which focuses on providing an innovative education teaching college and career readiness, has added one grade each of the last four years.

Its first freshman class comprised of 49 students are high school seniors this year preparing for graduating.

Looking back on the last three years at Holy Family Academy, which offers a personalized approach on learning and one day a week internships to one of 70 Pittsburgh-area businesses, students said the school has been life-changing for them and allowed them to meet and work with adults who could one day help them in their careers.

“It's life-changing,” said senior Jessiyah Jackson, 17, of the West End, who plans to go into nursing.

Learning from head of schools and chief learning officer Lisa Abel-Palmieri that the school originated as a pilot — and was, in all essence a test to see if leaders could make a go at it — in its first year, Jackson called Holy Family Academy “a miracle.”

Looking back to their first year at the school, where 80 percent of the students are not Catholic and students travel from 30 zip codes to attend, Jackson said things inside the school have greatly changed. The hallways are colorful now, they're wearing different uniforms and new classes are being offered to students each year.

Jackson also has noticed a change in herself.

While she loves to talk, classes at Holy Family Academy helped her open up to people she doesn't know. With internships at UPMC, Highmark, Children's Hospital and Allegheny General Hospital, Jackson has “climbed the ladder” of sorts.

She went from sitting behind a desk her freshman year to giving people tours and helping problem solve.

Paul Covington, 18, of the North Side, who plans to study mechanical engineering, talked about the changes he implemented at his internship at MSA, where he contacted nearly 300 of the company's clients to switch them from mailed paper letters to emails from the company.

His internships are what have stood out the most for him during his time at Holy Family Academy, he said. He also interned at K&L Gates, First National Bank and will intern this year at Hussey Copper. Along with his internships, he has a job at AutoZone and details cars as a side job — and still gets good grades.

As Abel-Palmieri quizzed a group of seniors on past projects and methods they've learned at the school, they laughed and readily answered the questions.

“It was taught to us well,” Jackson said.

While at their internships their junior year, students not only interacted with adults and worked in a job-setting, they also had tasks, like the capstone project, where they found a problem in their workplace and created a solution for it. As high school seniors, they will have to implement their solutions.

On the walls in several of the classrooms are the four values school leaders focus on teaching. They want their students to be problem solvers, servant leaders, entrepreneurs and resilient leaders.

Students by the end of their junior year select a career focus based on gaps found in the Pittsburgh job market, Abel-Palmieri said. They can select from a career focus in the arts, IT, science, human services or management.

The school focuses on personalized and project-based learning. In math class, the high school seniors said, this is most evident.

Many of this year's senior class came to the school several grade levels behind in their classes, some as many as three to four years, Abel-Palmieri said. Since, a policy was implemented that the school does not accept students who are more than two grade levels behind.

In math, where students are tested to determine their level, the room is separated into learning areas where students receive their lessons, perform group or peer-to-peer assignments and then have time to focus on individualized learning.

The students have made advancements in their grade levels, high school mathematics teacher Julie Sanders said. She, too, has seen a change in the students on a personal level.

“They're so flexible. You can throw anything at them and they're going to figure it out,” she said.

Students at Holy Family Academy attend Duquesne University once a week for their science labs. This gives them a chance to explore a college campus years before they head to that level of schooling, Abel-Palmieri said.

Preparing for graduation is exciting for this year's seniors. Yet, Jackson said she's enjoyed high school so much, she wants to stay at Holy Family Academy.

“I don't want to leave,” she said.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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