At Deer Lakes, ‘reimagining high school’ means learning from the community — and from other schools, too

This story is one in a series created in collaboration with the AASA Learning 2025 Alliance to celebrate the work of groundbreaking school districts in the Pittsburgh region. Kidsburgh will share these stories throughout 2023.

American teenagers are struggling with anxiety in record numbers. What if they could learn powerful ways to cope with stress and share their feelings — and do it together in ways that normalize the pursuit of mental well-being?

That’s what happens at Deer Lakes High School during an innovative class called Mental Toughness, an alternative to the standard gym and health class. Kids meet their physical education requirement for graduation. But rather than learning competitive sports skills, they’re discovering powerful strategies for mental wellbeing.

Mental Toughness blends physical and behavioral health in actionable ways, says assistant principal Ryan Aleski. “It’s how to deal with sleep hygiene, how to deal with nutrition — all of those things that make up your mental well-being and your mental toughness and your overall health.”

For kids who dread gym, it’s a welcome alternative. To the administrative team at this small district in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs, it’s something more — a solid example of the ways they’re actively preparing teenagers for the fast-changing adult world. 

“We’ve been reimagining high school,” says Deer Lakes district superintendent Dr. Janell Logue-Belden. “We’re not saying throw away traditional high school. We’ve done a great job as a traditional high school. But we’re really asking, `What can we do now?’ As the world is changing, what are the needs?’”

All photos courtesy of Deer Lakes School District.


Like many schools in western Pennsylvania, Deer Lakes has been holding community meetings as it builds a 21st-century vision for the school’s graduates.

“We’re really listening to the community and to students,” Logue-Belden says. “This isn’t my school district. It’s their school district.”

Deer Lakes has also been looking outside its borders for inspiration — comparing notes with nearby districts and some that are farther away as a member of the Western Pennsylvania Learning 2025 Alliance. That group is a regional cohort of school districts working together — and with peers across the country — to create student-centered, equity-focused schools that prepare every learner for tomorrow. 

Led by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and local superintendents including Logue-Belden, the Alliance meets for workshops, networking opportunities, and professional development. Aleski and Deer Lakes High School principal Patrick Baughman have been among those visiting other districts. 

“We’ve been meeting about once a month since the beginning of the school year to talk to each other and get an idea of what each district is doing,” Baughman says. “Things that are working well in their buildings, things that we’re struggling with — being able to use each other as a sounding board to work things through.” 

It’s been a chance to discover new ideas — and to realize that much of the impressive work happening in other districts is just like what’s underway at Deer Lakes.

Superintendent Dr. Janell Logue-Belden speaking at Deer Lakes 2023 graduation.


On a trip last year to the private Hawken School in Cleveland, Baughman and Aleski witnessed innovative learning — everything from students creating with 3D printers to art projects with an engineering twist. Much of it mirrored work happening right now at Deer Lakes.

“It’s gratifying for us to see that our kids at Deer Lakes School District are getting those same opportunities and experiences that a kid in the suburbs of Cleveland with families paying a great deal of money is getting,” Baughman says. 

“But there were also some other things that our kids aren’t doing that we were like, ‘That’s really neat. That’s really cool.’” 

For example, Hawken uses the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas break to offer three-week intensive courses on specific topics tailored to small groups or individual students.

Explains Aleski: “A student who’s taking French, their intensive is a three-week trip to France to be immersed in the language and the culture. There were students who wanted to do a 10-day hiking trip through the Appalachians or the Alleghenys, and they were doing a creative writing piece.” 

“Obviously at a public school, we’re not sending kids to France for three weeks,” he says. “But we really liked the idea of narrowing down to one singular focus. How do we incorporate that into the high school curriculum? How do we incorporate that into the high school schedule?” 

The idea of intensives, rather than full-semester courses, also got Logue-Belden and her team thinking about all the skills their graduates need. 

“Our kids need some life skills that they don’t necessarily have — skills that not even all of us adults have,” Aleski says. “Why can’t we teach them how to change a tire? Why can’t we teach them to change the oil? Or hem a pair of pants?” 

Throughout the coming year, the team at Deer Lakes plans to continue innovating — refining their mix of classes and working with the rest of the administrative team to map out the best possible Portrait of a Graduate. And members of the team will continue connecting with their students and the wider community, ensuring that their voices are heard.

That’s what personalized learning is all about, Logue-Belden says. “We want everyone, no matter where you’re from or who you are or what’s going on with you, to feel a sense of belonging at Deer Lakes.”

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