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More parents picking charter schools for their kids

Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series examining the state of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Jacob Gerlach attended Pittsburgh Public Schools through his middle school years but didn't hesitate when he had an opportunity to transfer.

Gerlach, 17, of Brighton Heights left the closed Pittsburgh Rooney after sixth grade and is a senior at Northside Urban Pathways Charter School, Downtown.

"At Rooney, it seemed like people did whatever they wanted, and it didn't matter to the teachers," Gerlach said. At his new school, teachers seem to care and class sizes are smaller, he said. "Everyone is there to learn."

Gerlach is among 4,000 students the district lost in the past six years. Enrollment in city schools has fallen for decades, mirroring a loss in Pittsburgh's population.

Some parents said they pulled their children from city schools because of communication problems with teachers and administrators, violence in the schools, lackluster programs and poor student achievement. Many of them chose to send their kids to charter schools, taxpayer-funded public schools separate from a school district.

"We are in a more competitive environment than we have ever been in before," Superintendent Linda Lane acknowledged. "We have to have schools that parents want to send their kids to."

Magnet schools with specialized programming, such as the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6-12, Downtown, have waiting lists, said district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh. CAPA has 17 children on waiting lists.

In 1936, the district enrolled 105,000 students. By 1978, the number dropped to about 50,000. In 2010, when census figures put Pittsburgh's population at 305,704, the city schools counted only 25,326 students. Those census statistics show 40,518 kids ages 5-18 live in the city.

Neika Williams, 39, of the North Side said she withdrew her son Meleik Lunsford from Pittsburgh schools after fifth grade. In ninth grade, he attends the Urban Pathways charter school, where the achievements of students, including brightly colored artwork and student-created signs depicting their ambitions, decorate the front bay windows.

"I was really taking a gamble, but I know I wasn't satisfied with Pittsburgh Public Schools because I thought they just didn't care enough," Williams said.

City school teachers did not adequately communicate to her Meleik's progress or struggles, and she sensed they were overwhelmed. They did not seem to care about helping him to achieve, she said.

Williams is much happier with her family's charter school experience, where she said students appear to be engaged and motivated to learn instead of disruptive and disrespectful. The charter school teachers are passionate about their jobs, she said.

"It's just so much different," she said. "You can go to a Pittsburgh public school, and kids are running around cussing each other out."

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the incoming president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, does not believe teachers are apathetic.

"You hate to hear that. You do care," she said. "You certainly don't go to work every day to get there to hurt anybody. I think that's why we're developing some of the systems in our schools."

Many teachers, for example, are involved in a program to mentor ninth- and 10th-graders so they don't feel lost in the shuffle at high schools, Esposito-Visgitis said. Away from classes, the instructors talk among themselves and with their students about kids' educational and social needs, she said.

Behavioral problems

Ronniece Sirmons, a math teacher at Manchester K-8, said many kids have behavioral problems because of challenges at home.

"Some of them want to put their heads down; some of them want to be disruptive or cause fights," she said. "They're doing all these negative things to be removed because they don't want to deal with school" and what's happening at home or in their neighborhoods.

Sirmons said she spends many free periods at school talking with students, trying to get to the heart of why they act out.

"You have to gain their trust. Then they'll break down some of those barriers they have," she said.

As the district grapples with keeping students, Lane's administration has proposed closing seven schools and realigning others to address the 10,191 empty seats. The 2010-11 budget projects a $68 million deficit, and school closings could save about $8 million.

Carey Harris, executive director of the independent watchdog A+ Schools, said school closings are unfortunate but necessary. She worries the district will cut electives and "under-enrolled courses."

"That concerns me because those are the changes that will directly affect kids' academic futures," Harris said.

Lane said administrators will review which classes are popular.

"We want to offer our students an array of choices, but we may not be able to keep offering a course if it's only drawing 10 or 12 students," she said.

Pittsburgh schools showed some gains in Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test scores in the 2010-11 school year, but the district does not yet know whether it met standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Elementary schools show the biggest gains on the achievement test and middle schools the smallest in preliminary results released this month. Only three of eight high schools are high-achieving: the CAPA, SciTech and Obama magnet schools. White students perform at least 25 percent better than blacks in reading and math proficiency, records show.

Lure of charter schools

Lane blames charter schools, which often have specialized programs in the arts, math, science or technology, for cutting into the district's enrollment.

A 1997 state law allowed charter schools, and by 2010, charter schools in Allegheny County enrolled 2,654 students. Such schools have more freedom to develop curriculums as long as they uphold their charter and academic standards.

Parents may get more options for schooling their children. Gov. Tom Corbett supports a proposal to allow vouchers for private or parochial schools, equal to state per-pupil spending in public schools. Opponents said that would further hurt cash-strapped public schools, but Corbett has said it could force failing schools to improve.

Jeremy Resnick, executive director of Propel Charter Schools, which operates eight schools in the county, said the newest -- Propel Northside, which opened this year -- registered 200 kids, most of them from city schools. Propel's waiting list has about 3,000 kids, Resnick said.

"We don't choose our students; they choose us," he said. "I think parents walk into our schools, see kids excited about learning and the arts programs and the variety of opportunities we provide, and the way our kids are treating each other. We've had a lot of growth over the years, and I think that reflects parents wanting to have choices."

Harris is not convinced that charter schools alone are to blame.

"The Catholic Diocese has had to close schools, too, because of declining enrollment," she said. "I think it's an overall trend that young families aren't necessarily staying in the city. They're moving out."

Jacki Hoover and her family fit that profile. Parents talked about overcrowded classrooms, poor student behavior and overwhelmed teachers, so Hoover and her husband chose to leave the city before their daughters became school-aged.

They moved to Mt. Lebanon in May 2010, a few months before their daughter Tegan, 6, started kindergarten.

"The schools were pretty much the only reason for our move," said Hoover, who has another daughter, Tessa, 4. "At the time ... we thought, 'Why should we put money into education for two private schools when we could be putting money at a mortgage?'"

Lane, hired as superintendent in December, said she knows some parents are frustrated.

"There's no point in worrying about it, because that isn't going to solve anything," she said. "We have a long road ahead, but we're working very hard."

Chance to speak out

The Pittsburgh Public Schools District will hold meetings to allow people to voice opinions on a plan to close or realign schools:

• Sept. 13, 6:30 p.m., Pittsburgh Greenway Classical Academy conference center, 1400 Crucible St., West End

• Sept. 15, 6:30 p.m., Pittsburgh King PreK-8 gymnasium, 50 Montgomery Place, North Side

• Sept. 19, Oct. 24, Nov. 21, 6 p.m., Conference Room A of administration building , 341 S. Bellefield Ave., Oakland

• Sept. 22, 6:30 p.m., Pittsburgh Obama cafetorium, 129 Denniston Ave., East Liberty

For information on the plan, visit or call 412-622-7920.

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