Charter middle school to shut Nov. 29

Officials at Career Connections won't fight city school board's revocation of charter

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Assailed by the Pittsburgh Public Schools for alleged safety violations and unable so far to obtain an occupancy permit for another building, Career Connections Charter Middle School has decided to close by Nov. 29 and transfer its 73 students to other schools.

Officials of the Lawrenceville school broke the news yesterday morning to parents, students and staff and to officials of the Pittsburgh school district.

"It's not pleasant, but it's something we have to accept," said Mike Hepler, president and chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, the school's operator.

The city school board voted Sept. 27 to revoke the charter and immediately close the school, questioning the suitability of the Boys & Girls Club building where classes have been held. After defying the shut-down order for seven weeks and rallying parents around the school, Career Connections decided that closing -- at least for now -- would be in the students' best interests.

School officials held out the possibility of re-opening, perhaps during the next semester.

Tim McElhone, Boys & Girls Club executive vice president, said the state Charter School Appeal Board still will be asked to rule on the dispute.

Though it opened only last summer, parents grew fond of the school and ignored the school district's demand that they enroll their children elsewhere. When the district stepped up the pressure with truancy citations, some parents tossed them in the trash, saying they would risk fines or jail terms.

Now, truancy proceedings for Career Connections' sixth- and seventh-graders will be suspended, but families must find and adjust to new schools three months into the school year. Some parents said they enrolled their children in Career Connections because of disenchantment with regular public schools and are loath to send them back.

"I'm going to look at anything and everything that might be available," said Patrice Lesesne, a North Side resident who enrolled her son, Keenan, at Career Connections after pulling him out of the district's Rooney Accelerated Learning Academy.

With Career Connections lost, Lawrenceville resident NcGai Vason said she would consider enrolling her daughter, Morgan, in a cyber charter. She had said her daughter would be "eaten alive" at the district's Arsenal Middle School.

About a dozen of the 73 students are from suburban school districts. While the Pittsburgh Public Schools and other school districts must take back their residents, admission to private or other charter schools would depend on available space; many charter schools say they have waiting lists.

About 10 of the middle school's 15 employees will be furloughed. The others will be assigned positions at Career Connections Charter High School, which the Boys & Girls Club operates in a separate Lawrenceville building.

The dispute exacerbated the Pittsburgh school district's rocky relationship with charter schools. Some parents said the financially ailing district targeted Career Connections for the student subsidies. The school accused the district of petty behavior, saying district principals refused to turn over student records.

After the school district refused to approve a charter, Career Connections sought and received one from the state appeal board. With plans to house the school in Lawrenceville's Catalyst Building held up by zoning issues, middle-school classes were held first in the high school and then the Boys & Girls Club.

The district said the club wasn't set up to operate as a school and raised various health and safety issues. The school board's charter-revocation vote led to a hearing -- a proceeding a step below the appeal board -- Oct. 17.

A hearing officer sided with the school district Tuesday, and the school board voted Wednesday to enforce the charter revocation, by seeking a court order if necessary. While the Boys & Girls Club will present its case to the appeal board Nov. 27, club officials noted that a ruling might not come until weeks later and said that they didn't want to prolong the uncertainty.

Mr. Hepler said the club didn't sacrifice the middle school to help the 8-year-old high school, which is under district scrutiny for academic reasons. After the administration last week recommended the board not renew the high school's charter, the board agreed Wednesday to give Career Connections more time to address problems.

The board voted Wednesday to grant a charter renewal to City Charter High School. It cast a preliminary vote against a charter renewal for Renaissance Academy of Pittsburgh Alternative of Hope.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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