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Armstrong School District gets input on charter school plans from proponents

| Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, 7:40 a.m.

Armstrong School District had plenty of questions about Everlasting Elderton Charter School but few were met with direct answers during a hearing Thursday night at Lenape Elementary School.

About 20 people appeared in support of the proposed charter school, many of whom are members of Everlasting Elderton's founding board. A charter application was filed with ASD on Nov. 14 and the district was mandated to conduct a hearing before Dec. 29.

“This is a formal hearing with the purpose of gathering facts about whether or not to issue a charter to Everlasting Elderton,” said solicitor Lee Price. “We need to get as much information on record as we can.”

Although no approval or denial can legally come from ASD until between Feb. 10 and March 12, state law dictates that the district make its decision based on local support for the charter school along with its ability to offer a comprehensive and innovative learning experience.

Catherine Ernest-Fouse, president of the charter school's founding board, said the foundation of Everlasting Elderton would be based on individual attention to students, a focus on personal development, a hands-on learning approach, more involvement from parents and the community and an initiative that it's “cool to like school.”

“Parents need some type of choice that is not available to them,” said Ernest-Fouse. “With the changes occurring in our school district, we felt that there needed to be another alternative. That's what (Everlasting Elderton) is a free, public alternative.”

Ernest-Fouse said each student at the charter school would have a CARE (communicate, affirm, recognize and be an example) team that would emphasize skill development over summary grades. The centerpiece of the plan revolves around MicroSociety—an educational design where students create a microcosm of the real world inside the school. The concept has reportedly been applied in more than 300 schools since its introduction in 1991, although Price – who asked questions on behalf of the ASD board – noted that most MicroSociety curriculums are geared towards grades K-8 while Everlasting Elderton intends it for students including grades 9 through 12.

Joshua Pollak, attorney to Everlasting Elderton, said his firm handles affairs for several charter schools in the state. “In recent years, there have been schools that have, in partnership with MicroSociety, built their own program based on its principles,” said Pollak. “I'm actually working with a couple of applicants right now that are doing just what Everlasting Elderton is looking to do: extend that philosophy into the high school years.”

Price also asked questions about the proposed school ranging from whether it could function with fewer than its 150 students to which company the school would use to provide Internet filtering. Ernest-Fouse often said it was too early for such plans and Pollak often said he would have to defer to the charter school's current business manager, who was unable to attend the hearing.

Price asked about the proposed school including its universal 7:30 a.m. start time (noting that some students including those at the elementary level could have to catch buses as early as 6:10 a.m.); a perceived lack of provisions made for advanced placement and gifted support students along with those learning English as a second language; few options for students interested in vo-tech; no initial budget for a librarian or special education director; a possible fee students could have to pay for extra-curricular activities and no sports teams for the 2013-14 school year; no primary selection of a baseline test for secondary students; and no firm commitments for financial support outside of ASD.

Ernest-Fouse and Pollak pointed to the community aspect of Everlasting Elderton and that it would need to rely on parents and residents along with dedicated multi-disciplined educators and administrators to make specific decisions about curriculum and day-to-day operations. Pollak pointed out that the charter school had about 40 letters of support from local businesses. Price said he noticed that several of those letters seemed not to have the best interest of students in mind.

“One of the things that concerned us in looking at your level of support is that some of them don't seem to so much speak to education as they speak to they think (the school) will help draw business to the Elderton area,” said Price. “Ernest-Fouse responded, “I think the thought is that without the school, it negatively affects the citizens.”

However, not all in attendance were convinced. Sue Boarts, an ASD teacher who was transferred from Elderton Junior-Senior High School to West Shamokin High School in Cowanshannock where most Elderton secondary students were also moved, said closing small schools is nothing new. “I realize you want to save your community, but I feel that those of you supporting the idea of a charter school should think again. Maybe you should be putting your efforts into supporting the decisions of your school board and administrators instead of trying to save your community school.”

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