Agreement with charter school questioned in Penn Hills

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Enrollment is rising at the first charter school authorized by the Penn Hills School District, but along with success have come some growing pains.

Initially, 260 students enrolled for the 2011-12 school year in Imagine Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship. Currently, 375 students are enrolled in grades K-4 for 2013-14.

Three trailers were added last year to accommodate the increase in students at the school, which occupies the former William Penn Elementary School building at 200 Penn School Drive.

Last month, the school's application to the municipality for an occupancy permit to continue using the trailers as temporary classrooms was denied, prompting questions last week at a school board meeting about the impact on class sizes at Imagine Penn Hills.

"One of their selling points was class size," Penn Hills school board member Heather Hoolahan said. "They have outgrown the William Penn school building and already have three trailers. Now their application for an extension to use the trailers this year was denied. So what will they do? I have already heard parents complaining that class sizes will be as high as 29 to 30 kids per room."

Ms. Hoolahan asked the administration at the meeting whether larger class sizes would violate the agreement between Imagine Penn Hills and the school district.

The charter school has a five-year operating agreement with the district, which is up for renewal in 2016.

Imagine Penn Hills opened in 2011, offering instruction for grades K-2. Each year a grade will be added until the school offers K-8.

According to Danelle Conner, Imagine Penn Hills principal, the school has converted several unused rooms to gain more classroom space.

"We have taken two rooms -- an art room and a library space -- and turned them into classrooms. As a result, we have some slightly larger class sizes where there are 25 to 26 students per room. Typically, we are at 22 students per room."

Ms. Conner said that while the agreement contains guidelines on class size, there is flexibility based on enrollment needs. She said current class sizes do not violate the school's agreement with the district. She also said the charter school directors are looking at opening a second site on Universal Road.

According to Ms. Hoolahan, the charter school has several other issues. She said it had not billed Penn Hills for services for five months and neglected to make payments to the Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System pension fund.

Ms. Hoolahan expressed frustration at the lack of control the school district has over the charter.

"My frustration is that Imagine Penn Hills is a hot-button issue. This is $3 million out of a $68 million budget. The issue really is sustainability. I want to make sure the parameters of the agreement with the charter school are being met. What remediation does the law provide?"

While Imagine Penn Hills is run locally, it is one of 70 schools operated by Imagine Schools, a national for-profit charter school business. Imagine operates schools in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

education - neigh_east

Tim Means, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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