Propel McKeesport is top charter school

Sole elementary to get national honor


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There are no excuses.

It's a philosophy that permeates the hallways of Propel McKeesport charter school and is embraced by its 385 students along with teachers, aides, administrators, custodians and cafeteria workers.

On the walls hang black and white signs resembling speed limit signs with "excuse limit" printed over a large zero. Some students walk the halls with T-shirts emblazoned with "no excuses."

Sixth-grader Christina Wright, who was wearing one of those T-shirts, described her school this way:

"At this school, everyone is real disciplined and they get their work done."

Even field trips must be earned through good grades and behavior and the performance of a classroom job.

The zero tolerance for excuses appears to be part of the recipe for success at Propel McKeesport, which was chosen last week as the top charter school in a national competition sponsored by the Effective Practice Incentive Community initiative.

The school received the initiative's "gold gain" award for having the greatest gains in achievement on tests scores among 89 elementary charter schools. It was the only elementary charter school to receive the award.

Last year, the school received a "silver gain" award, but this year's test scores elevated it to the gold category, according to Allison Jack, EPIC charter school grant director.

The award brings with it much prestige, along with $100,000 in cash to be divided among the staff. It also provides Propel with an opportunity to share some of its best practices with other schools.

The success may start with the "no excuses" philosophy, but there's much more put into producing the impressive results the school has shown on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

Last year, 100 percent of the students in grades five and six scored proficient or advanced in math, and in grades three through seven, 94 percent scored proficient or above in math and 77 percent in reading.

This despite the fact that 85 percent of its students in kindergarten through eighth grade qualify for federal free or reduced lunches, 73 percent are minorities and 13 percent are in special education.

About 55 percent of the students are from McKeesport, but the school draws from a dozen local districts.

It is part of the Propel charter system, which also has elementary schools in Homestead, Turtle Creek and Kennedy, and a high school in Munhall. A new K-12 school will open in Braddock Hills in August.

When Propel McKeesport staff and parents were asked recently to try to explain the school's success against the odds, they pointed to a tightly knit group of teachers who work in conjunction with each other under the direction of Principal Tina Chekan.

"This is an intimate family setting and they are willing to be held accountable," said Denise Dandrea, who has a son, Vincent Jr., in sixth grade, and a daughter, Dakota, in kindergarten.

In kindergarten through fourth grade, there are two classes with 20 students in each. In grades five through eight, there are two classes of 25.

But each classroom is broken down into several smaller groups that move among various stations in the room as they switch their academic activities. Working together in small groups requires all of the students to participate.

"We are too small for anyone to try to hide," Mrs. Chekan said.

Each classroom has either two teachers or a teacher and a teacher's aide who circulate among the groups, helping students with their work and teaching to each individual student's ability level.

Special education students are immersed in the regular classroom and special education teachers work alongside the regular classroom teacher.

During each class period, several groups of students work independently of each other on a variety of activities. They move from station to station as they complete one work project and embark upon another.

Their work continues regardless of whether the teacher or teacher's aide is standing watch. Manners and discipline are at the forefront.

Not a minute of the educational day is wasted. From the time students walk through the door, there are assignments to be completed. Class changes take place with a sense of orderly urgency.

Learning even takes place as students walk up and down the staircases, where vocabulary words are posted between the steps to recognize and memorize.

Mrs. Chekan's adaptations -- for students -- of Steven R. Covey's 7 Habits for Highly Effective People are posted in the classrooms.

The teachers set high goals for the students and are somehow able to motivate them to reach those goals.

"The teachers push you so that you start to care about it yourself," Vincent Dandrea Jr. said.

Parents also buy into the "no excuses" philosophy and encourage their students to work hard and follow the rules.

"That's the way it should be," said Deon McCullough, of Mc-Keesport, whose son, Isaiah, is in kindergarten.

"Everything functions as a cohesive unit," said fifth-grade teacher Keith Smetak. "Other schools in the area have pieces missing. But here, everything comes together and it creates the perfect education."

Teachers say they work to support each other, share ideas and best practices on a regular basis, and participate regularly in interdisciplinary teaching, incorporating the same themes into social studies, language arts, math science and art curriculums.

"That way, the lesson becomes a life experience for students," said art teacher Brad Gentile.

The staff holds itself to the same "no excuses" standard.

"There is no room here to say I didn't get something done," said sixth-grade teacher Jamie Chlystek.

The day the EPIC award was announced to the school, a group of fifth- and sixth-grade students was on a field trip at Swissvale Lanes. The owner announced to the crowd at the bowling alley that some award-winning students were in their midst.

But the announcement wasn't followed by any loud cheering or carrying on among the students.

"We did what we always do," said sixth-grader Lydia Ditzenberger. "We were happy and we smiled and said 'thank you.' "


Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.


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