Pa. charter schools seek state-level changes to gain foothold

Elizabeth Behrman
| Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

When the Montour School Board approved an application by Propel Schools to open a new high school, the charter school leaders were pleased.

Propel, the largest operator of charter schools in the area with almost 3,600 students, has appealed to the state eight times since 2004 after multiple districts denied its applications for new charters and expansions. The Montour district was one of them, records show.

“We're fortunate,” said Propel spokeswoman Kelly Wall. “Propel has a good story, and we're doing good things in the community.”

Although Propel is celebrating its recent victory, other operators said the charter school environment in Western Pennsylvania is contentious at best.

Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded through school districts. Advocates hope for state-level changes that would streamline the charter application process and provide them with better access to school district facilities. In the meantime, schools have had to get creative to garner community support and ensure success. PennCAN, a state education advocacy group, hosted a “charter school fair” in November in Pittsburgh to provide parents with more information about options in the area. All 10 Propel schools participated, as did schools such as Environmental Charter School, Urban Pathways and City Charter High School.

Jessica Hickernell, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit group, said she believes it was the first event of its kind in the Pittsburgh area and a first step in PennCAN's plan to create a “loose coalition” of the area's charter schools. Her organization is encouraging the schools to work together to reach out to parents, share best practices and engage the community.

The charter schools in Philadelphia do something similar, Hickernell said.

“That's kind of our hope of what will happen in Pittsburgh,” she said. “Right now, a lot of charter schools are kind of operating on islands of themselves.”

Propel is in the second year of a partnership with Chatham University that helps the schools attract quality teachers, Wall said. Tuition for a master's degree in teaching is paid, and in exchange student teachers with the Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps commit to teaching for three years at a Propel school.

The schools' dedication to meeting the needs of their families and providing students with a quality education has helped them earn the support of the communities they serve, said Kimberly Roberts, Propel's director of talent.

“They're our biggest supporters, and I really think that's who we can attribute our growth to,” she said.

Charter schools need local support, because they can use it to help lobby politicians at the state level who make decisions about funding and charter applications, said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

While the schools wait on decisions made at that level, they are left to do what they can with growing waiting lists.

There are 30,000 students across the state on waiting lists for charter schools, Fayfich said, although that number is skewed slightly by the fact that a single student can be on multiple lists.

Schools like the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh, which has a waiting list of several hundred students, have tried to expand, only to be denied by the school board.

Environmental, which operates two schools in Pittsburgh, applied last year to open a high school. The charter amendment was revised twice at the request of Pittsburgh Public Schools officials, and the school board unanimously voted down the application at its December meeting.

“This is an example of their attitude toward charter schools,” Environmental's CEO Jon McCann said after the vote. “It's prevalent, it's historic.”

The school appealed the board's decision to the Charter Appeals Board, he said.

Pittsburgh board president Regina Holley declined to comment, citing the ongoing appeal.

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at lbehrman@tribweb.com or 412-320-7886.

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