Exodus spurs change in how school districts battle with charter schools

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 9:02 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,” said Joseph Clapper, 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.”

The Plum School District has experienced a reversal, with fewer students attending charter schools this year than in 2008. District records show 68 Plum students enrolled in charter schools this school year, compared to 86 during the 2008-09 school year.

Plum School Board member Joe Tommarello, a 2011 graduate, said the district has the right mix that makes it a place students want to go to school.

“Plum is a class-act school district,” Tommarello said. “We can be a role model to other surrounding districts. In Plum, students aren't just a number like (in) a charter school.”

Tommarello, education committee chairman, said the Plum School District has the curriculum and support for students.

“We have a lot of programs,” Tommarello said. “And the students have a good working relationship with teachers and administrators.”

Tommarello strives to keep programs in place despite funding challenges.

“I will do everything in my power to make sure the kids get the best education and the taxpayers get the best for their dollar,” Tommarello said.

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, QV Academy, in 2010.

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.”

Antonia Brown of Brentwood enrolled her children, ages 6 and 8, to The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, the state's largest cyber charter school. Brown wanted to home-school her children but felt overwhelmed by meeting Pennsylvania's requirements for doing so when the family moved here from Connecticut.

She said she worries that public schools provide distractions that would prevent her children from discovering their own talents.

She wanted to educate her children in an environment where they were free from peer pressure.

“PA Cyber works for us because we can kind of go at our pace,” Brown said. “We didn't want to change what we are doing for our family.”

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.

Staff writer Karen Zapf contributed to this story. Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or dkurutz@tribweb.com. Matt DeFusco is an intern with Trib Total Media.

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