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Achievement House Assures Student of Allergy-Free Zone

Alane Butler

Riley Vehec is more focused on her school work and less worried about suffering a life-threatening allergic reaction from food as an Achievement House Cyber Charter School student.

PENN HILLS, Pa. — Transferring to Achievement House Cyber Charter School two years ago was a life or death decision for eighth-grade student Riley Vehec, whose severe allergies to peanuts and tree nuts made staying in a brick-and-mortar school too dangerous to her health.

“We almost lost her a few times,” her father said. “We liked the alternative of having her home and not being stressed every day worrying about her.”

Riley and her parents, David and Gigi Vehec, reside in Penn Hills, Allegheny County.

Riley transferred in seventh grade to Achievement House Cyber Charter School, an online public charter school in Exton authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to serve students throughout the commonwealth in grades 7-12. She was accepted into the National Junior Honor Society her first year at Achievement House.

Riley had her first severe allergic reaction in 2007 after eating two cashews, which sent her into anaphylactic shock— a condition that can quickly result in an increased heart rate, sudden weakness, a drop in blood pressure, shock and ultimately unconsciousness and death. Although some children outgrow their allergies, Mr. Vehec said doctors have determined Riley will have them the rest of her life because they are so extreme. Even the slightest exposure, including cross-contamination from foods produced near peanuts, could cause a reaction.

While attending various Catholic schools through the elementary grades, Mr. Vehec said Riley had no guarantee of not being exposed to allergens either accidentally or intentionally — even at a nut-free school. There were children who tried to put items in her drink to cause her to have an allergic reaction, field trips with stops at bakeries, classroom treats containing nuts, students sneaking peanut-filled candy bars into class and peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches eaten in the cafeteria at the nut-free table. Keeping her in a brick-and-mortar school was no longer an option.

“She was bullied by their complete insensitivity to her condition,” Mr. Vehec said. “Fortunately, we had an option to enroll her in Achievement House Cyber Charter School in seventh grade. It has given her a sense of security to allow her to focus on her school work and herself and be successful.”In less than two years, Mr. Vehec said he has seen a transformation in his daughter because she has been relieved of the stress about potential exposure and being singled out and isolated from other students. Riley has always been a straight-A student, but now she expresses herself more freely and seems more challenged by her school work, Mr. Vehec said.

It was in an awful environment at school before I came to Achievement House,” Riley said. “When I came to Achievement House, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I could be comfortable and more confident and have room to change.

She was accepted into the National Junior Honor Society her first year at Achievement House.

Her classes this year include Honors Geographic Culture, Honors Biology, Honors Literature, Project Lead the Way engineering and Pre-Algebra. She also has a Physical Education class, which requires her to monitor and log her physical activities that have included walking, running and archery.

Since elementary school, Riley has pursued a variety of interests and sports, including basketball, soccer, archery, cheerleading, acting and modeling. Her focus has recently shifted to politics and activism, which she attributes to the newfound freedom she is experiencing at Achievement House. She also has been motivated by the challenges she has had to overcome because of her allergies and the 2011 death of her uncle, Albert V. “Bud” Belan, a state Democratic state senator from 1999 through 2000.

Her career goal is in politics and possibly even holding a political office, such as state governor.

“That’s a big goal to be governor, but I don’t think I will rule anything out,” Riley said. “My family has always been politically active, and hopefully I will jumpstart my career helping out other candidates first.”

Achievement House operates a satellite office a few miles from the Vehecs’ home in Oakmont, Allegheny County. Riley rarely has cause to go to the center because the school’s online environment enables one-on-one attention from teachers and interaction with other students. The online experience also has provided Riley an outlet to be more vocal with her opinions.

“I feel like I am actually allowed to be heard here, and I do comment more probably because I am home in a comfortable environment,” Riley said. “I also have more options to express myself. During online classes, students can speak through the microphone, type, create a slide show or send a private message to the teacher. You don’t have to stand up in front of a whole classroom.”

When she does go to the center, Mr. Vehec said he sends her with confidence knowing the staff will ensure her safety. Mr. and Mrs. Vehec also appreciate the ability to access their child’s school work online and meet with teachers through weekly live web chats.

“Even when I travel with work, I can still go online because it’s all remote and easy to navigate,” Mr. Vehec said. “If students are involved and take advantage of all that is available, they will be successful.”

Riley said the flexible schedule and ability to do her school work via the Internet has allowed her and her mother to accompany her father on some business trips.

Riley and her parents also are supportive of the school. Mr. and Mrs. Vehec and Riley recently participated in a Parent Week panel discussion, and Mr. and Mrs. Vehec serve as parent representatives on the school’s Middle States Association accreditation committee.