Propel charter school moves into Pittsburgh school district

North Side picked for charter school

The first time principal Ariane Watson toured the closed school building that was to become home to her new school, Propel Northside, she and others had to use a flashlight because there was no power.

Still, she had no trouble envisioning the school filled with elementary schoolchildren busy with their work and activities.

"Even in the dark, I could just picture this building coming to life," Ms. Watson said. "But it really isn't about the physical building. It's what we are creating. Our mission, our vision," Ms. Watson said.

Ms. Watson's vision will become reality tomorrow when Propel Northside opens its doors for the first day of class in the former Columbus Middle School on Buena Vista Street in the Central North Side. The school will open with 200 students in grades K-four, with 20 students in each class and two classes at each grade level. A grade will be added each year until the school holds 400 students in grades K-eight.

As with all Propel schools, there already is a waiting list.

The opening marks the eighth school for Propel since 2003, but the first one in the city. Propel operates seven charter schools in suburban Allegheny County. It also marks the first time a Propel charter was granted without the need for the organization to appeal to the state charter appeals board.

After initially rejecting Propel's charter application in February, the Pittsburgh school board approved it in April and then approved a $10,000-a-month lease with Propel to use the shuttered Columbus Middle School for the first year of operation. Propel plans to move the school to another site on the North Side next year.

"We are looking forward to working with a school district that we know is committed to making changes across the city. We want to be part of what they are doing," said Jeremy Resnick, Propel's founder and executive director.

The system's total enrollment for fall 2011 is about 2,500 students, making it larger than 17 of the public school districts in Allegheny County.

In October 2010, Propel won a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to "replicate and expand high-quality charter schools that have demonstrated success." The grant is to be used to expand one charter school, Montour, and start four more.

Propel Northside is one of the four, with plans for a Propel school in the Sto-Rox School District the next step.

Some of the staff for Propel Northside is coming from other Propel locations. Ms. Watson was principal at Propel Homestead.

"Hopefully we are bringing the same culture and climate with us," said Carol Wooten, superintendent of Propel schools.

But the majority of staff are hires new to the Propel system. Among them is Gabrielle Pollock, who recently completed her reading specialist certificate at the University of Pittsburgh and who will teach fourth grade at Propel Northside.

"Starting a school really gives us an opportunity to create an identity. There will be no preconceived opinions about a child or the school and everyone will have a fresh start," she said.

Ms. Pollock said she was drawn to Propel because she is interested in urban education, the collaborative teaching model used there and the significant amounts of professional development that take place.

The staff will consist of the principal, 10 classroom teachers, two special education teachers, a Title I teacher, a Spanish teacher and an art teacher along with a creative arts classroom adviser who will work with visiting artists for the creative arts program.

There will also be a literacy coach, a guidance counselor and three paraprofessionals, two of whom are certified teachers. By law, charter schools need to have only 75 percent of the teaching staff certified. But all of the Propel Northside teachers are certified, Ms. Watson said.

Technology will be abundant at the school, with each classroom equipped with a Smart board and several laptop computers.

Currently, the majority of Propel Northside's students are from the Pittsburgh Public Schools, with others from Carlynton, Shaler Area, Sto-Rox and one student from Mt. Lebanon. Students will wear the same uniforms as those at other Propel schools -- khaki, blue or black pants and white, light blue or yellow shirts.

Michelle Murphy of Sheraden is sending her two daughters to Propel Northside. NaTerra Murrell, 7, will enter second grade, and Nazyaah White, 6, is going into first grade. They were students at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-five last year. Next year, she plans to enroll her third daughter, Jordynae White, 4, in kindergarten at Propel Northside.

Ms. Murphy said the primary reason she chose Propel is that the charter school system has been able to close the achievement gap between white and minority students -- a feat that larger local school systems appear to have difficulty achieving.

"I chose Propel schools for the results of their educational growth year after year. I really especially like the way the African-American achievement gap continues to close," she said, adding that she is also impressed with Propel's creative arts and technology programs.

According to Propel's published results from the 2009-2010 school year, 75 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, 66 percent were students of color and 15 percent were special education -- all factors that tend to put student achievement at risk.

Yet, overall, Propel students were 35 percent more likely to be performing at grade level than their peers in public schools, and African-American students were 52 percent more likely to perform above grade level.

In addition, 72 percent of Propel's African-American students achieved proficiency as compared with 55 percent statewide.

The motto for Propel Northside, according to Ms. Watson, is "the three Bs: "Be safe. Be respectful. Be responsible."

The motto grew from a schoolwide behavior program that Ms. Watson said was initiated at Propel Homestead and will be brought to Propel Northside. Ms. Watson said the students must respect the school staff, and the staff likewise will treat students with respect, with reprimands being made in a positive fashion.

The Propel schools seek to have a strong parental component, with parents involved in the students' academic and social activities, and the schools trying to help parents find resources they need to help their children.

Teacher Nancy Koslosky is transferring from Propel East to Propel Northside and is looking forward to the challenge of starting a new school. Prior to teaching at Propel, Mrs. Koslosky was a teacher at the former St. Germaine School in Bethel Park for seven years. She said she sees similarities between how the Propel schools and Catholic schools operate.

"It's the sense of community and sharing that the Catholics have without the faith intervention," she said.

"Day in and day out we are here to share with the children in their life experiences. We care about the whole kid -- not just test scores -- and how we can make them a better person."

Mary Niederberger: ; 412-851-1512. First Published August 21, 2011 4:00 AM


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