Propel school OK'd as Sto-Rox decision overturned

| Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Leah Walker enrolled her daughter in a charter high school more than 10 miles from their McKees Rocks home, rather than send her to nearby Sto-Rox High School.

“It was a hard decision,” said Walker, 39. Her daughter, Courtney, will enter 11th grade soon at Propel Homestead and uses public transit, changing buses in Downtown.

The single mother of five said she believes her daughter is better suited for the charter school's nontraditional teaching methods than to instruction at Sto-Rox. Two siblings, ages 7 and 9, attend the Propel Montour school in Kennedy for kindergarten through eighth grades.

Walker advocated opening a Propel Schools site in Sto-Rox. The school district denied a charter in 2011 and 2012, but the state Charter School Appeal Board overturned the decision on July 29, and the school is expected to open for the 2015-16 school year.

“We're very pleased that we have this validation from the state,” said Jeremy Resnick, executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit Propel Schools.

Propel West is to comprise grades K-12, though it will offer only elementary and ninth grades when it opens. Enrollment could open as soon as fall, Resnick said, and the school eventually could have as many as 800 students.

Propel is considering a property in Stowe where an elementary school once stood, Resnick said.

Discussion about the school is likely to resurface at a Sto-Rox School Board meeting on Aug. 14, said Patrick Dorrenbacher, the board president, who took his post after the 2012 vote.

He declined comment on the decision by the state, saying the district had not received formal notification as of earlier this week.

Among concerns raised by Sto-Rox officials was that the school's opening would drain the district of crucial funds.

While the district is starting the 2014-15 school year with a balanced budget, albeit after agreeing to furlough seven support staff, it is among a number of poor districts struggling amid declining state funding and rising tuition payments to charter and cyber charter schools, according to a 2013 state audit report.

The district had about 1,400 students as of fall 2013, according to state enrollment records. About one-fourth of the 400 students at the Propel Montour charter school are from Sto-Rox communities, Resnick said.

Since starting in the basement of an old Homestead hospital in 2003, Propel has opened a nine charter schools in Allegheny County. Another, for grades K-4, is to open in Hazelwood this month.

Propel has about 3,000 students, with roughly the same number on a waiting list as of May, according to its website. That includes nearly 300 from Sto-Rox.

Jake Flannick is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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