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Process Questions: Why are some city charter schools approved over others? 

"The charter-school process is a very political one in Pittsburgh."

Derrick Lopez, president of the Homewood Children's Village, stands outside the Afro-American Music Institute, one potential site for the group's proposed Collegiate Charter School campus.

Photo by John Colombo

Derrick Lopez, president of the Homewood Children's Village, stands outside the Afro-American Music Institute, one potential site for the group's proposed Collegiate Charter School campus.

As Pittsburgh Public Schools considers closing another school to help avert a million-dollar budget deficit in 2016, three new charter schools are clamoring for their own share of students ... and of public tax dollars.

But getting approval for a charter school — a school run by an outside group that nevertheless gets public money from the district itself — can be difficult. Between 2008 and 2012, the district has approved only two charter schools out of 15 proposed.

"The charter-school process is a very political one in Pittsburgh," says Randall Taylor, a former school-board director who's been involved in two charter applications. Getting approved can depend on who you know, he contends.

The outcome of the latest round of charter applications may test that proposition.

The district is currently considering three charter proposals: the Homewood Children's Village Collegiate Charter School [HCV]; Robert L. Vann Charter School, slated for the Strip District; and Provident Charter School for Children with Dyslexia, to be located in the North Side.

Taylor is one of the backers for the Strip District school, but the Homewood proposal arguably has the strongest district ties: HCV President and CEO Derrick Lopez worked for the district from 2007 to 2011. He served as assistant superintendent for secondary schools and chief of high school reform during that time, before taking the HCV post.

While employed by the district, Lopez helped broker the relationship with HCV, under which the program provides social services like mentoring, coaching, and behavioral support to students in three area schools. The district, in turn, helps HCV secure funding by applying for grants from the U.S. Department of Education and other sources.

Of the three proposals, HCV would have the largest projected student body: Its application envisions attracting up to 1,000 students in grades 6 through 12. Modeled after an acclaimed "Harlem Children's Zone," in which educators make use of community cultural assets, the HCV plans to utilize existing buildings and institutions in Homewood as its campus. These will include the YMCA, Afro-American Music Institute, Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum and Carnegie Library.

"My experience with the Pittsburgh Public Schools, coupled with the two years that I have spent here in Homewood working with individual children and families, has given me a lens into the many challenges that our children face," Lopez says. "It is my hope that the district will recognize that work and the HCV's unwavering commitment to children."

If it does so, the district would be breaking from recent tradition. The only two charters approved by the district in the past five years were expansions of established charter brands. Urban Pathways K-5 is an expansion of the North Side Urban Pathways 6-12, and Propel North Side, while the first of its brand approved in PPS, is one of nine Propel charter schools in the area.

"You're certainly seeing a lot of support from the district for Propel," Taylor says. "The pattern of preferential treatment is clear, but no one is really saying why."

District Superintendent Linda Lane agreed to an interview for this story, but later canceled it. The district asked for a list of questions, but declined to say why some charters are approved over others, or provide examples of the rationale behind charters that were approved in the past.

The district's charter-review team makes recommendations on charter applications after conducting site visits, examining financial and student-performance data, and assessing the curriculum. The review team's recommendations are sent to the school board, which held a public hearing on all three current proposals Dec. 16.

The state's charter law constrains a school board's review of charter proposals — at least in theory.

"Charter-school law dictates reasons that can be used to deny an application," says Tim Eller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. A charter can be denied, for example, if it isn't financially viable, or if it doesn't comply with the state school code. It also can be denied if the application doesn't provide enough evidence to support its claims. If the charter is denied, the applicant can appeal to a state appeals board.

But, Eller adds, "The school district needs to rule on the merits of that application regardless of whether it feels a charter is warranted or not."

One thing almost everyone agrees on: In a neighborhood like Homewood, the status quo isn't sustainable.

According to achievement results from the most recent Pennsylvania State System of Assessment Tests, only 8 percent of 11th graders at Westinghouse, the high-school located in Homewood, scored at least "proficient" in math; just 14 percent of 6th graders scored proficient or above in reading.

"The data speaks for itself," says Lopez. "Only half of the students who begin schooling in the Homewood community end up graduating."

The district has tried a number of fixes: Lopez himself presided over an effort to segregate classes by gender — a 2011 experiment that was brought to an abrupt end in the face of a threatened ACLU lawsuit. Currently, the academic options for Homewood's children are limited. While students can apply to a magnet program at any school in the district, spots at these schools are highly coveted.

HCV's charter does propose some innovations, including an extended school day and school year. The school will also feature "looping," in which teachers stay with the same group of students for three or four years, and hopes to be Pittsburgh's first STEAM school (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). But it also plans to borrow from the curriculum already being used in other schools — namely, the City High Charter School and the district's Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, in Oakland. HCV would pay for a license to make use of those curricula.

"We want to use the best of what's out there," Lopez says. "But it's how you deliver it."

Still, the prospect of paying a former public-school administrator to administer a public-school curriculum, to students taken from public schools ... it almost seems like a case-study for those who worry that charters are a parasitic drain on school districts.

HCV's application comes at a time when Pittsburgh Public Schools is trying to reduce its spending to avoid a $46.3 million budget deficit in 2016. The district pays charter schools $12,871 for each student enrolled and is expected to spend $54.9 million on charter payments in 2014.

"I'm against adding more charter schools in Pittsburgh at this time," says Jessie Ramey, a member of the Great Public Schools Pittsburgh coalition, which has been skeptical of charters and similar reform proposals. "We actually don't have a good track record of charter schools in [Pennsylvania]. So if we're going to add new charter schools in Pittsburgh, I want to be absolutely sure they're good for our students."

Under state law, the district is not allowed to consider the fiscal impact of approving a charter. Nor does a charter application have to demonstrate that it is offering anything new.

"There are some who think a charter school needs to open for a specific purpose that the applicants feel the district is not providing," Eller says. "I know at one time there was that belief, but charter school law does not legislate only a certain number of charter schools in a region."

School board member Mark Brentley, though, worries that HCV may undermine any future effort to shore up Westinghouse. A new principal, Alexander Herring Sr., was brought in at the start of the 2013-2014 school year to help turn things around. But Herring "hasn't really had a chance," says Brentley. "We have yet to allow the new administration to get a foothold."

But Taylor, who previously represented Homewood on the school board, says the situation in Homewood is dire enough that any solution is worth trying.

"I have some strong reservations about [the HCV] plan," says Taylor, who expressed concerns about kids walking from building to building on its "community campus" throughout the day. But despite that, and despite his support of a different proposal, Taylor says "things are so bad out there, that [the school board] should approve it."

The district is slated to make a decision this spring.

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