Process Questions: Why are some city charter schools approved over others? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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

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

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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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