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Propel McKeesport gets Gold Gain award

| Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Walk into a classroom at Propel McKeesport and you may find teachers on both ends working with small groups of students.

In one classroom on Tuesday, a teacher was discussing what her youngsters might experience on a trip to Kennywood, while another was using a visual aid to point out sentences.

"We have a culture that promotes a sense of urgency," Principal Tina Chekan said. "We try to make every second count."

That effort certainly contributed to the 2009 "Silver Gain" Effective Practice Incentive Community award bestowed upon Propel McKeesport by New Leaders for New Schools, an honor touted on a banner outside the school along Versailles Avenue.

That banner will be changed in the near future, because the charter school has won a "Gold Gain" EPIC award this year.

"We have something truly valuable to contribute about how schools in struggling urban communities can do more for children," Propel Schools Superintendent Dr. Carol Wooten said.

EPIC was established in 2006 with funding by the U.S. Department of Education's Teacher Incentive Fund, charter school partners and private philanthropic funders.

As Chekan noted Tuesday, the McKeesport school in the Pittsburgh-based Propel organization is the only Gold Gain winner out of 89 participating elementary charter schools nationwide.

"It is based on student gains for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, both reading and math," Chekan said.

Propel officials say key elements leading to the success of their McKeesport charter school include individualized attention, data driven instruction, a sense of urgency, and a powerful professional development program.

"Much of our success is because of the teachers we hire," Chekan said. "We have a very intense and rigorous hiring process. And teachers make the difference."

On the 2008-09 PSSAs, Propel officials said McKeesport fifth- and sixth-graders were 100 percent proficient or advanced in math.

They said Propel McKeesport students in fourth through seventh grades scored more than 71 percent proficient or advanced in reading, with fifth-graders scoring 92 percent proficient or advanced.

"Students are reaching levels that are consistent with the more affluent school districts," Chekan said.

"It is very significant in establishing charter schools as a viable option to traditional public institutions," Assistant Principal Hampton Conway said.

There are 385 students in Propel McKeesport, which covers kindergarten through eighth grade, with 55 percent from McKeesport Area School District.

That also means much of Propel McKeesport's funding comes from MASD.

"It is a school of choice," Chekan said.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about what we do," Conway said. "It shouldn't be looked at as a competition."

McKeesport Area officials declined comment for this story.

Thirteen percent of the student body is from Duquesne. The rest are from Baldwin-Whitehall, Clairton, East Allegheny, Elizabeth Forward, Penn Hills, Pittsburgh, South Allegheny, West Mifflin Area and Wilkinsburg districts.

"We look forward to sharing our best practices with other schools in Western Pennsylvania and across the country," Wooten said.

Propel is expanding in the coming year to a new school in Braddock Hills.

Propel McKeesport opened in 2005 in the former St. Nicholas school building along Shaw Avenue after MASD rejection of the charter school was overturned by a state board.

MASD's subsequent appeal also was rejected by Commonwealth Court.

In 2007 Propel McKeesport moved to its present location, the former St. Mary's school building built in 1934 across from St. Mary Czestochowa Catholic Church along Versailles Avenue.

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