Oakbridge, Newport students unite to fight for their education
Students from Oakbridge Academy of Arts and Newport Business Institute are combining their efforts to raise awareness and seek answers about the abrupt closings of their Lower Burrell trade schools.
Two days after learning the schools had closed mid-term, about 45 students, parents and some teachers gathered Wednesday morning at the Pittsburgh Mills mall in Frazer to share information, offer support and plan their next steps.
“We want to get the students organized and work as one and be heard,” said Lori Otwell, 45, of Harrison, a student at Newport.
As Ekleana Mazziotti, a 19-year-old Oakbridge student from Lower Burrell, held a handcrafted sign reading “We need an Oakbridge miracle,” Otwell called the gathering to order.
The students began sharing bits of information they'd gleaned from school administrators and staff, the state Department of Education, the media and each other.
Otwell said they plan to begin picketing peacefully Thursday along Greensburg Road in front of the Kinloch campuses.
“This doesn't just affect us, it affects the community,” said Otwell, noting the Alle-Kiski Valley needs local colleges and career-training programs if it expects people to remain in the area.
Oakbridge students also created a Facebook page, “Saving Oakbridge and Newport,” to disseminate information. Another student created a “Save our Schools” petition on Change.org, and there was talk of designing T-shirts.
Otwell also urged students to seek help from state legislators and passed out contact information for their offices.
State Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, whose legislative district includes Lower Burrell, encouraged the students to contact his district offices. He said his staff would try to be a central resource for students.
“We have already contacted the Department of Education to get an answer on what obligation those schools have,” Evankovich said. “We'll make sure that's followed up on.”
Tony Arcurio, 21, of Brackenridge, an Oakbridge student who was within weeks of graduating, also recommended they consider consulting with an attorney to learn their rights.
Students said they're frustrated with what they call scant information they're getting from administrators about why the schools closed, what will become of tuition money and what other schools are available as transfer options.
“I'm getting tired of being told, ‘Wait until after the holidays,' ”said a tearful Otwell. “I'm not going to enjoy my holidays not knowing what's happening with my future.”
“How long are these kids supposed to put their lives on hold?” asked Tracy McCoy of South Buffalo, whose daughter, 18-year-old Katelyn McCoy, began classes at Newport during the fall term.
Michelle Mullen, who co-owns the schools with her estranged husband, John Bryant Mullen Sr., said administrators have been answering questions as best they can.
“We're bending over backwards for them. We are making ourselves 100 percent available,” she said. “I don't know what kind of answers they want. I know they're upset. I'm upset because I lost three businesses.”
Mullen said they're working with the state Education Department to find new schooling options for the students. She said the state should be contacting the students soon.
Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Education Department confirmed that the department would assist in finding alternative placements.
The schools, which he said did not give the required 30-day notice before closing, are required to either refund students' tuition money or find them alternative schools.
“No one will lose their money,” Mullen said. “Everyone who paid cash will be refunded. No one is going to be left out in the cold.
“There probably will be kids who will end up getting the fall semester for free.”
Mullen took issue with a report in Wednesday's Valley News Dispatch that noted the schools' finances were tangled in the couple's prolonged divorce proceedings, and that federal financial aid was withheld from the schools because they could not obtain a letter of credit.
However, she refused to elaborate or explain when she said “industry issues” played a role in the closings.
Even though the schools were failing financially, Mullen said she allowed the winter term to start as usual at the beginning of December because she believed she'd be able to find a solution.
Mullen said she was unsuccessful in finding a buyer or investor.
“This was an economic problem,” she said. “If we don't have the capital to keep the businesses open, we can't keep them open.
“I really, really thought I was going to get the funding to keep them going. I never intended for this to happen.”
During Wednesday's gathering at the mall, students expressed their conflicting emotions.
They say they loved their schools — the unique programs, the caring teachers, the family atmosphere created by small classes.
And yet, they're infuriated with how the closures were handled.
“I'm angry,” said Arcurio, who was completing his externship, the last requirement before graduation.
Diane Rogalski, 56, of Brackenridge, said was proud of the 3.8 GPA she was earning in her medical assistant program at Newport: “I've been out of school for a long time.”
Now she doesn't know how she'll make ends meet if she doesn't earn her certificate and get a new job soon. She's been unemployed since she lost her job in March and her husband, who is battling renal failure, can't work.
McCoy said her daughter, Katelyn, was heartbroken when she learned of the school closure on Monday — the same day she returned to Newport following a week's absence because of injuries she suffered in a car accident.
“She loved it there, McCoy said. “It's like a family there.”
Otwell said even when she attended classes in unheated rooms at Newport, she still appreciated the efforts of the teachers to provide a quality education. She was concerned for the staff who had lost their jobs just before the holidays.
“But this is making me feel better,” she said of the turnout on Wednesday. “This is awesome.”
Jackie Barker, 19, of Titusville said she was one of several students who had to move out of their apartments in Upper Burrell on Tuesday. She said she drove home Tuesday night, then returned to the Valley on Wednesday morning for the meeting.
“There is no question I wouldn't be here,” Barker said.
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.