Increasing number of students opting for charter schools
By Daveen Rae Kurutz and Matt Defusco
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
A growing number of Western Pennsylvania students attending taxpayer-funded charter schools is changing public education, as parents take advantage of school choice.
“We're competing with the cyber schools, and we think we can do it better,” Joseph Clapper said, superintendent at Quaker Valley School District, which draws students from the Sewickley valley. “These are interesting times. It is important for Quaker Valley and, I believe, all public schools, to be open-minded about the way we deliver curriculum to our 21st-century students.”
The number of students choosing a charter school in 23 western Pennsylvania districts has increased from 1,500 in 2008-09 to 2,300 this year — or by 52 percent, according to a survey in October. Trib Total Media conducted the survey to determine how many students are choosing charter schools, and why.
Since the Legislature approved charter schools in 1997 to give parents an alternative to their home districts, enrollment has increased in these publicly funded but privately operated schools regulated by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Some schools offer a specific focus, such as on the arts, or on business. The schools receive a payment for each student from the district where the child lives, also known as “tuition.”
Nationwide, about 40 states have rules permitting charter schools. There are 175 charter schools in Pennsylvania; 16 of those schools offer online-only classes.
But the schools have been a lightning rod for criticism, as some districts lose millions of dollars per year with the number of students going to charters. Critics also say that the schools are academically untested and do not have to follow the same regulations as traditional public schools.
“Not all charter schools are successes,” said Butch Santicola, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state. “Some are doing a good job. But what has happened is that (public schools) have sat back and been in defensive mode.”
Santicola pointed to how many charter schools struggle to meet state testing standards and how some cyber charter schools have graduation rates as low as 32 percent; to meet state standards, 85 percent of students must graduate. In 2011-12, 112 of the 156 charter schools statewide that took standardized tests met state standards.
As parents continue to exercise school choice, public schools are changing how they educate students.
“Charter schools are a game changer, no doubt,” said Joseph Domaracki, interim associate dean for the college of education and educational technology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “Everybody that's leaving a public school and going to a charter is doing it for a particular reason.
“There could be as many reasons as there are kids leaving.”
Charter schools have made public school officials rethink how they present education, Clapper said. His district, which educates students from the Sewickley area, responded by opening its own cyber program in 2010, QV Academy.
This year, Quaker Valley has more students enrolled in its QV e-learning program than it does in charter schools. The program was spurred by a demand for more varied learning opportunities. Some of the 75 students enrolled in the program attend classes exclusively online, while others take a mix of classes at the district and online.
Similar programs are in place in Norwin, North Hills, Gateway and North Allegheny, while Franklin Regional and other districts offer a limited number of classes online.
Domaracki attributed the move to a way for districts to recoup some of the students – and money – they've lost because of the competition.
“That's what they're being forced to do,” Domaracki said. “Public schools have to do more to maintain their populations. It's a reality.”
Even though classes are offered online, most charter schools operate in buildings – and at times, such as is the case with Propel Pitcairn, in a building that once educated students for the same district with which it now competes.
Propel operates nine schools in Allegheny County that educate children in kindergarten through grade 12.
Superintendent Carol Wooten said the schools, the first of which opened 10 years ago, have strong academics, but that isn't what always draws parents.
“Our parents tell us they come to Propel because it's very safe and nurturing – they don't immediately start talking about academics,” Wooten said. “We opened to provide a choice of high-performing schools for parents who otherwise wouldn't have a choice.”
Ivelisse Torres of Penn Hills wanted choice when her daughter Chloe entered kindergarten last year. Torres initially wanted to send her daughter to a Christian school, but the move would be cost-prohibitive. She didn't want to send her to Penn Hills, where her daughter would be in a school with 700 other children.
She began hearing about a new charter school, Imagine Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship. The school offered similar things to Propel but had a twist in the curriculum. Children learn early on about how money and business work through a “microsociety” where children perform different jobs, such as working with animals or creating puppet shows.
“This was something I was not going to experience at (Penn Hills),” Torres said. “Our first year, she did phenomenal. I feel like a charter school gives us public education with a private school feel.”
In some districts, the number of students attending a charter school actually has dropped during the past five years.
At Franklin Regional in Murrysville, about 17 percent fewer students are attending a charter school than five years ago. Superintendent Emery D'Arcangelo attributes that to the programs that his and many other high-achieving districts offer.
That's what officials at Gateway hope will happen. This year, about 100 more students left the district for charter schools, but another 100 who had intended to enroll elsewhere came back after the district began offering full-day kindergarten, school board member Skip Drumheller said.
Part of the increase in students leaving this year is because a new charter school, Propel Pitcairn, opened in the former Pitcairn Elementary. The school board closed the school last year to save money, and several months later Propel acquired the property and opened a charter school there. Students first began attending classes there in August.
“The biggest investment we can make is in our kids,” Drumheller said.
“We cannot afford to throw away another generation of kids to poor education and poor job outlooks.”
Drumheller said children will learn more about the world by attending larger, more diverse schools.
The Gateway School District has about 3,600 students. He said officials will continue to fight for every local student to graduate with a Gateway diploma.
“You can't continue to do what you've done in the past in these changing circumstances. You can't keep trying to do the same things and get the same outcome,” Drumheller said.
Daveen Rae Kurutz and Matt DeFusco are staff writers for Trib Tortal Media.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Monroeville manager suspended by council, could be fired in January
- $3.5M bond to go toward Pitcairn maintenance projects
- Accusations arise in aftermath of Pitcairn Council race