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Charter exodus continues in Penn Hills School District

| Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, 3:30 p.m.
Patrick Varine | Penn Hills Progress
Fourth-grader Maxwell Martin's mother placed him at the Imagine Penn Hills charter school because she felt he would get the attention he needed.
Patrick Varine | Penn Hills Progress
Fourth-grader Maxwell Martin's mother placed him in the Imagine Penn Hills school because she felt he would get the attention he needs.

Some Penn Hills School District leaders are pressing to find out why so many students are leaving to attend charter schools.

About 830 of the district's 4,700 students go to charters, state-funded alternatives to public schools. Since 2013-14 enrollment began in mid-August, 45 students have left. In November and December, the district lost 10 students to charters or cybers.

Board members recently discussed creating a formal process to interview parents before the students leave.

Board member Heather Hoolahan said she wanted to know why exit interviews were not being consistently done with families who are leaving the district. Informally, parents offer a variety of reasons for leaving.

“It's ranged from those who felt their child was not being served properly, to those whose child was being bullied, to those who also recognize that there are 32 other choices out there where their child can go,” said secondary education director Bill McClarnon said.

Most students who have left are in seventh grade or above, officials said.

Bernice Martin moved to Penn Hills from the Mt. Lebanon area, and said she decided to go with Imagine Penn Hills because of her fourth-grade son's dyslexia and special-education requirements.

“When I looked into the Penn Hills School District's special-education curriculum and how many students were part of it, I thought Imagine would be able to give him the attention he needs,” Martin said.

More than 200 Penn Hills children attend the Imagine Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship which opened in 2011, and more than 280 attend various Propel charter schools. Other popular destinations include PA Cyber Charter School and Agora Cyber School.

In an effort to retain students, the district started its own cyber school this year. Enrollment was initially capped at 24 students to control costs, McClarnon said.

That cap was lifted in December and the program now has 32 students.

Hoolahan suggested bringing furloughed teachers back to help run the cyber program. However, the district has already brought back nine of 11 teachers who were originally furloughed late last year.

New board member Pauline Calabrese said employees should be tracking the data on why parents choose to send their children elsewhere.

“We need to have someone doing this who's going to own it, someone who's going to care and be committed to it,” she said.

The Legislature approved charter schools in 1997 to give parents an alternative to their home districts.

Enrollment has increased over the past five years in western Pennsylvania in these privately operated schools regulated by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Some schools offer a specific focus, such as the arts, or business.

At Imagine Penn Hills, the most popular individual charter option for Penn Hills students, the focus is on a “microsociety model,” where students “own” and operate businesses within the school.

When a student leaves for a charter or cyber, the local public district must relinquish his or her share of state funding in a payment to the new school.

This year, Penn Hills will make more than $9.5 million worth of those payments.

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