Keystone Oaks' Project Succeed marks 25 years of dishing out diplomas

Matthew Santoni
| Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Joel Vanucci was puzzled as to why so many students were dropping out of the Keystone Oaks School District in the early- to mid-1980s, so in 1987 he called a few of them to ask.

“The majority felt that nobody in school cared whether they were there or not,” said Vanucci, who was then the dean of students for the district. “As any administrator worth your salt, you can't have that.”

So with the district's permission and grant money from the state and numerous foundations, Vanucci created Project Succeed, a night-school program where those students could feel like their teachers and administrators were more deeply involved in making sure they were in class, learning and succeeding.

This spring, Project Succeed will complete its 25th school year and surpass 2,000 graduates — students who'd dropped out or been kicked out of regular classes, then applied to come back for their high school diploma.

The first class was just seven students, and only four of them graduated, Vanucci said.

But once the program hit its stride in the early 1990s, enrollment has averaged between 90 and 100 students a year, with a graduation rate of about 95 percent, he said. This year's class has 102 students.

Initially financed with state grants, the program now receives money from foundations and school districts that pay a flat rate of $12,000 and are able to enroll as many as a dozen students a year.

Students who want to enroll must pass an application and interview process with Vanucci to ensure they are serious about pursuing their diploma. Vanucci said he uses the interview to lay out his expectation that the students will show up on time, do their work and meet deadlines.

“We treat them like adults. They know the expectations up front,” said Vanucci, the program's director and a retired administrator from Keystone Oaks. “I don't put up with attitudes or drama.”

Students attend classes two or three nights a week at Keystone Oaks High School under a staff of seven people, with their stays ranging from a semester to a year depending on how many credits they had when they dropped out of their former schools.

About 72 percent of the program's graduates go on to some sort of higher education, whether it's professional/vocational schooling, community colleges, or colleges and universities. They obtain diplomas from Keystone Oaks or their “home” schools rather than a GED, or General Educational Development certification.

Dominic Woods was a homeless teenager who had earned good grades and was just a credit and a half away from getting his diploma, but he was kicked out of Brashear and Carrick high schools for bad behavior. A friend's mother referred him to Project Succeed in 1992.

“Joel brought me in and said, ‘You can do it,' ” said Woods, now 40, of Brentwood. He teaches social studies to kids — some much like his former self, he said — at Wilkinsburg High School, and he's studying to earn a master's degree from California University of Pennsylvania.

“He's coming out and telling me he's confident in me ... that kind of thing was a turning point in my life,” Woods said of Vanucci, “and I hope I can do the same thing for my students.”

Judy Tripodi, 30, dropped out of high school in 2001 in California. She tried to get her GED certificate but found one computer-heavy program too impersonal, while another program lost its grant money and shut down before she could finish.

She enrolled in Project Succeed at the beginning of the year and got the few credits she needed to get her diploma when the rest of the class graduates in June.

“I didn't know I'd get to graduate with an actual cap and gown,” said Tripodi, now living in Mt. Washington. “The program's amazing. Anybody can do it; they just have to get their work done.”

Moon Area High School principal Barry Balaski said his district was one of Project Succeed's partners, sending two or three students per year if they drop out short of their graduation requirements.

“Joel … runs an effective program that provides opportunities for student success no matter the circumstance,” he said in an email. “MASD is thrilled to participate in the program, and would absolutely recommend it to other districts.”

The program will mark its 25th anniversary on Friday with an open house and banquet for past graduates, starting at 6:30 p.m. in the Keystone Oaks Middle School cafeteria. Among the honorees will be Eileen Shields, 72, of Castle Shannon, the second-oldest graduate of the program after a 75-year-old woman in the early 1990s, Vanucci said.

“I couldn't be any more proud of what we've been able to accomplish,” Vanucci said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or

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