Environmental Charter School wants to offer high school classes

| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

In a pair of Regent Square schools built at the beginning of the last century, students are learning through a 21st century model of education.

Teams of educators teach second-graders about community service. Every student gets at least 80 minutes of science instruction a day. Instead of separate social science and English classes, eighth-graders learn cultural literacy through group projects.

The Environmental Charter School has no textbooks.

“We're building the creative brain to be a flexible thinker,” said Jon McCann, CEO of the charter school that opened in 2008 and is looking to expand.

The privately run but publicly financed school this month asked Pittsburgh Public Schools to expand its charter from its K-8 program to one K-12, and to add a K-8 charter for another school. With about 600 students from 28 ZIP codes enrolled and 400 students on a waiting list, McCann and others at the school say they want to introduce more students to their unique style of teaching and see middle-schoolers through to graduation.

“We need to prepare kids for a dynamic, ever-changing world,” said Leigh Halverson, who chairs the school's governing board. “The traditional education system is stuck in a model that doesn't allow kids to be flexible.”

As a charter school, ECS gets $7.4 million of its annual $9.4 million budget in tuition reimbursements from districts in which its students live. The remaining $2 million comes from government grants and donations.

The city school board last year approved a five-year extension of the original charter. The board will hear arguments for expansion next month.

Board member Regina Holley, who worked in the district for 35 years, said she supports ECS but won't support expansion.

“We already have two good programs,” she said, citing the Science & Technology Academy at the Frick School and the engineering and robotics program at Taylor Allderdice High School, both of which the school district operates.

Board member Bill Isler, whose district includes Regent Square, said he wants to make sure the charter mirrors the district's population and see a program evaluation before deciding. Minorities make up about 35 percent of ECS's student population, state figures show. About 67 percent of students enrolled in Pittsburgh Public Schools are minorities.

The latest school performance profile from the state shows success. The school scored an 85, higher than any score reported for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

McCann and academic director Nikole Brugnoli Sheaffer say the program is succeeding and ready to expand because of its teachers. They get a framework and the freedom to get creative.

“We are standards-based. It's not willy-nilly,” said Diane Karichko, who teaches third-graders environmental literacy, one of the school's core subjects, which helps students make connections between people and the environment.

Each classroom has at least two instructors. Some have more. Leaders encourage teachers to design new instruction models, such as the thinking lab for which teacher Shannon Merenstein won a Carnegie Science Award this year.

She and co-teacher Chelsea Young blend science and art in their room on the second floor at the former Park Place School. The third-graders this week were learning about the natural resources of Pennsylvania by designing costumes that display coal patches or the shellfish whose fossils are embedded in limestone.

“I'm of a science mind, so I'm a skeptic,” Young said. “But I know they're getting the science concepts. And they get a deeper understanding because they're exploring it creatively through the art.”

Sheaffer and teachers talk about the value of not teaching to take tests and not teaching subjects in separate “silos,” such as separate math, English or social studies classes, because real-world jobs don't segregate math skills from writing abilities. They're giving students a safe place to take risks and build critical-thinking.

“Google and others are saying, ‘This is what we need,'” Sheaffer said.

Ed Donovan, chair and graduate program director of the education department at Chatham University, said colleges are looking for those skills in incoming freshmen. He has seen the results of ECS through student teachers who come back to Chatham begging to return.

“When somebody is brave enough to do what they're doing, I applaud it,” he said. “If it was crazy, I'd be concerned. But it's steeped in research. It's evidence-based.”

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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