Propel school to open in Montour in August

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Almost three years after it proposed the idea, Propel Charter School finally is set to open in the Montour School District.

Propel President Jeremy Resnick said the school will open in August in the former Hy-Power Products office building on Bilmar Drive in Kennedy. Propel's original plan had been to open a school in Robinson.

Mr. Resnick said the Kennedy site is a "really nice space" that will be gutted and reworked for use as a school. Plans are to open with 40 children in kindergarten through grade six, eventually expanding to 280 children through grade eight. "We're looking forward to doing what we do," he said.

It took one final legal battle to get to this point. Propel put the deal together in the spring and summer. But in September, Propel sued Kennedy, saying the township had ordered it to take its proposal to the planning commission with no good reason.

The building already was there, and schools are permitted uses in the zoning district.

"The minor alterations and improvements to the building cannot reasonably be considered a development which would trigger the involvement of the planning commission and the board of commissioners," the complaint says.

Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Joseph James agreed, ruling on Oct. 30 that Kennedy had to issue building and occupancy permits, and also had to pay Propel's legal fees.

That was only the latest of many hurdles Propel's leaders have faced since proposing a Montour school in December 2003.

First the Montour school board rejected the school's charter and Propel had to go to a state appeals board for approval. Then they handled what they believed to be foot-dragging by Robinson Commissioners. Two potential sellers backed out of deals due to delays in township approval, and Propel at one point filed suit against Robinson to force staff members to act on its application.

Propel faced school district opposition in opening schools in Homestead and McKeesport as well, and school districts generally have been hostile toward charter schools. Allowed under a 1997 state law, charter schools are funded by school districts based on how many of the district's children go there.

Montour faces tuition charges with a charter school opening within its boundaries.

Carl DeJulia, acting superintendent at Montour, said he is not overly concerned about competition, believing that Montour is providing a quality education with "excellent elementary schools."

He noted that while charter schools have seen some success in inner cities and depressed areas -- areas where traditional schools tend to struggle -- they have been less so in more affluent suburban areas, where parents tend to be more satisfied with the schools.

"Given the demographics, I doubt if they're going to draw much from Montour," he said.

Dr. DeJulia said he has no problem with competition, however; he was involved when the charter school law was being developed in 1997, and supported the idea of giving parents choices.

"Competition is always a good thing," he said. "It sharpens the saw. Educators in general have to embrace competition, embrace change. It makes us all better."

Mr. Resnick said that giving up "is really not in my nature," and that any time the road seemed long, he had an easy source of inspiration.

"If my will ever flags, we'll have a meeting with parents," he said, "and their eagerness is enough to bump me up."

Propel was required to have lists of interested parents when it got its charter in 2004. A handful were determined enough that they enrolled their children in Propel's Homestead school, but most are still waiting.

"We have lists that are a little out of date," Mr. Resnick said. "We will get back in touch with people."

Propel appeals to parents with a program including a longer school day, a longer year of 190 days instead of 180, small classrooms and strong arts programs. Propel brings in visiting artists in various disciplines in the arts in six-week rotations, and pupils have arts classes twice a day.

The schools also teach four hours of reading, writing and math each day, and try to take a hands-on approach to science and social studies.

Lee Ann Munger, of Ingram, was so taken with the program that she enrolled her son in the Homestead school when Propel Montour was delayed. He is now in first grade there, and his little brother is in kindergarten.

"I'm very pleased with the education they are receiving," Ms. Munger said. She was especially pleased with what she perceives as high academic standards and the arts emphasis. Her son was learning multiplication basics at the end of kindergarten.

She thinks school districts are misguided in their opposition.

"It is a public school," she said. "I see it as a laboratory through which other schools can learn."

Deborah Fisher, of Robinson, still has her son in Montour schools, but the boy will be going to Propel in the fall. She is hoping to find higher academic standards with stricter guidelines for the quality of pupils' work.

"They make the children really work and invigorate their minds," she said.

Ms. Fisher described her son as "a typical boy who would rather be outside playing than sitting in a classroom paying attention," and said he has struggled in school. She is hoping for a more demanding atmosphere that will bring out the best in him.

Mr. Resnick said Propel is not for every child, and is not meant to replace traditional schools, which work for the vast majority. But it does create a choice that would not exist otherwise.

"One size doesn't fit all," he said. "It's really up to the family to decide whether this is the right match for their child."


Brian David can be reached at bdavid@post-gazette.com or 724-375-6816.


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