First grads emerge from charter high school

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Four years ago, 156 rising freshmen volunteered to be guinea pigs.

They parted with old friends in the regular public school system and signed up for the City Charter High School, or City High, as they call it.

Located in the Clark Building on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, City High is not like other schools, from its emphasis on technology to its calendar built on three trimesters separated by one-month breaks.

Students have the same teachers for four years and part-time internships. There are no sports, bands or cheerleading teams. The only thing these students have to root for are the mechanical robots they built for a competition.

Charter schools, which are public schools, are chartered by school districts but run by their own boards. Parents do not pay tuition, but home school districts pay a fee set by the state for each resident who attends.

"They told us we're the guinea pigs," said senior Melanie McGuire, 18, of North Braddock, who plans to attend Community College of Allegheny County this fall. "They said 'You guys are the first class. We're going to be testing on you. See if you can make it.' "

The 95 seniors who persevered -- including some who joined the school in 10th grade -- will graduate on Saturday at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. About 80 percent of them have been admitted to four-year colleges.

The ones who didn't make it -- about 40 percent of that incoming class -- quit City High for a variety of reasons. Some couldn't handle the business casual dress code. Or they didn't want to stay in school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for 186 days or go to school in the summer.

Some transferred back to their home schools or to other high schools where they could get credit for D's that would be failing grades at City High. Some of them ended up with General Educational Development certificates instead. Others gave up on high school altogether.

City High itself is doing better than most other city public high schools.

City High's overall score in math and reading on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests met the standard with 66.4 percent proficient or advanced in reading and 37.8 percent in math. In addition, 79 percent were proficient or advanced in 11th-grade writing.

Among the city school district's high schools, only two of 10 did better than City High in the 11th-grade state reading tests in 2005; half did better in math and one did better in writing.

About 80 percent of the student body at City High comes from the Pittsburgh school district. The rest are from surrounding suburban districts.

Senior Michael Niedecker, 18, of Marshall, has a long school day. "I live in Wexford, and I leave home around 6:30 a.m. and can't get home until 5:30 p.m. It's a challenge. But it's rewarding, and I think it was really worth it."

The student body is about half male, half female, 53 percent African-American and 45 percent white. About half of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. There are 50 special education students.

Attendance averages about 90 percent, and there are so few teacher absences -- an average of less than one day per teacher per year -- that the students haven't had a substitute. Teachers who show up for work every day of the 200-day work year earn a $2,000 bonus. Each day they miss, the bonus decreases by $500.

Like most schools, students at City High have their cliques, conflicts and popularity contests. However, because it's so small and they've been forced to live in such close quarters for four years, classmates and teachers became tight-knit.

When three of the original teachers resigned over the four-year period for personal reasons, many of their students were crushed.

"We cried day after day because we found out these teachers were leaving us," said senior Anna Miskis Neilson, 17, of Mount Oliver. "We're with them every day. We talk to them. They're not just teachers. They're our friends."

"We're all pretty much a big family," said senior Sasha Kambic, 18, of Swisshelm Park.

City High occupies floors seven through 11 in the 23-story Clark Building, best known for its diamond shops.

Every window at City High provides a stunning view of high-rise buildings and shiny corporate logos. Gym class is held at the Downtown YMCA. For art, students produce digital videos and create music on digital keyboards.

"We really don't have the facilities here to throw clay pots and do big sculptures," said Rick Wertheimer, who had been coordinator of instructional technology for Pittsburgh Public Schools before co-founding City High.

Four years of math and science are required at City High. All students take biology, environmental science, physics and can choose forensic science or more physics. Math is an integrated combination of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, probability and statistics, and precalculus.

"There's a lot of academic rigor here," said Maxine Klimasara, City High principal and former principal of Reizenstein Middle School in Shadyside. "It's not that you have to be exceptionally intelligent. That's not the case. But you have to be willing to work hard. Where we've lost the most students is when they realize we're not kidding.

"Assignments do count. Long-term projects are important. We are going to read lots of books, the entire book. We'll do lots of word problems. And there were a number of students who said, 'No way.' "

Dr. Wertheimer and co-founder Mario Zinga, who had worked with Dr. Wertheimer in city schools, decided after years in public high schools that they could not reform a school in bits and pieces.

"We were banging up against the bureaucracy," Dr. Wertheimer said.

"The union wants this. Another group wants that. Parents aren't ready for this. I had come to the conclusion that the only way you could change a high school was to change it from the ground up."

Some charter schools face obstacles in getting school districts to charter them, in part because some officials believe they drain resources from traditional school districts.

The city school board approved City High's application in February 2002 with six conditions, but after district administrators said the conditions were met, the board didn't give the charter final approval.

Common Pleas Court ordered the board to approve the application, which it did in April that year.

With a limited window to attract students before fall, the school advertised on billboards and at movies popular with teens. The ads were noticed by teens like Ms. Kambic, who believes City High was her destiny.

"I was going to Allderdice and I got this [flier] in the mail for City High, and me and my mom were going to the movies and we passed a [City High] billboard and then we went in the movie and there was an ad on the movie screen," she said.

City High started with only ninth-grade students and teachers on one floor of the Clark Building.

Each year, it added a new freshman class and new teachers to follow that class. Today, the charter has 520 students and a waiting list of 50 for ninth grade.

Using their school-provided laptops, students can look at their grades, attendance and assignments, as can parents and school administrators.

The computers allow them to download projects their teachers put online and do research papers or PowerPoint presentations.

Many members of the first graduating class at City High say they were sold on the idea of getting a free computer, but they had other reasons as well.

Senior Jessi Battista, 18, of Brookline, said, "What drew me to City High was that all my friends from middle school were coming here. But 90 percent of them left, and none of them are even attending school anymore."

In some cases, the students dealt with harsh criticism.

"There were always kids standing outside the building, saying jokes and messing around picking fights," said Stephen Bethea, 18, of Shadyside. "They would start off talking about our school. There were a couple of kids that got stuff thrown at them and spit at."

Tanasia Arthur, 17, of Brookline, said some of her friends who went elsewhere started calling her a geek.

"They see me on the bus, and they see me walking home or whatever all dressed up with my backpack, and it doesn't help when I tell them I'm part of the robotics team," said Tanasia, who plans to major in psychology at Northeastern University in Boston.

With no athletic teams to cheer for, the most popular club on campus is the robotics team. The students built a ball-tossing robot to compete in the national robotics tournament in Atlanta earlier this year. It didn't win any awards, but it was great for school spirit.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette photos
Senior Stephen Bethea listens to teacher Ryan Oliver while discussing an assignment for Mr. Oliver's Global Issues class at City Charter High School, Downtown.
Click photo for larger image.Senior Cherrell Fulton flies the glider she made in Flight, Speed and Structure class at City Charter High School.
Click photo for larger image.

Tim Grant can be reached at tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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