Jonathan McCann, new principal of the new Environmental Charter School at Frick Park in Regent Square.
By Kate Luce Angell
What started as the dream of a few East End residents three years ago is becoming a reality.
Last week, the 15-member board of directors of the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park announced it has named Jonathan McCann, the current vice principal of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, as the new school's principal.
The environmental school's charter was approved by the Pittsburgh school board Feb. 20, after it was denied in January 2007.
Imagine Schools of Arlington, Va., has been brought in to help run the facility, which will start with 250 students in kindergarten through third grade in the former Regent Square Elementary building on Milton Street. Plans are to add one grade each school year up to Grade 8.
As a city public school, the Environmental Charter School will be free to students who are admitted, although preference will be given to Pittsburgh residents.
The appointment of Mr. McCann is a milestone toward which David Lassman, of Point Breeze, said he and school co-founders Barbara Hicks and Mike Schiller had been working for some time.
"It's been a tremendous amount of work," he said, "but it's an opportunity to do something new, and to provide a great educational alternative to people in this area."
In addition to working at Leed's Promotional Products in New Kensington, Mr. Lassman is an adjunct faculty member in public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
Mr. Lassman said the "environmental" and "charter" parts of the school idea should appeal to parents.
He said he knew he wanted a school that not only taught a younger generation to be responsible stewards of the Earth, but one in which "parents would have more influence" over their children's education, and more access to those in charge of it, "without having to pay for a private school."
He said that as a nonprofit organization, the Environmental Charter School not only would receive public school funds, it could apply for grants.
"Plus, there's all these studies that show nature-based learning improves kids' attention spans, improves test scores and [grade point averages], and helps protect against stress."
According to Mr. Lassman, the process of gathering support for an environmental charter school reflects how diverse, and connected, the Pittsburgh community is -- just like an ecosystem.
Mr. Lassman said Mr. Schiller, a friend and founder of the recreation nonprofit Venture Outdoors, "reached out to a lot of people in the environmental world" to find support for their idea, while Ms. Hicks talked to people she knew through teaching in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Mr. Schiller recently moved to Seattle, but remains a member of the board.
They soon connected with Phil Parr, a Point Breeze resident and former chief of staff for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, who now acts as Imagine's regional school developer. Mr. Lassman said they soon saw it would be much easier to make the school a reality if they took on Imagine as a partner.
Imagine Schools operates 51 public charter schools nationwide.
They also recruited board members with the skills they knew would be needed to get the school up and running.
Indira Nair, vice provost for education at Carnegie Mellon University, helped to develop a curriculum for the new school.
Marijke Hecht, executive director of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association and a former high school biology teacher, helped to form partnerships with local environmental organizations.
The school's partners include Riverquest, Frick Environmental Center, Phipps Conservatory, the Pittsburgh Zoo and Three Rivers Rowing Association.
Board treasurer Donna Bour, a Regent Square resident and owner of Bour Associates, noted that while the school will be using the environmentally based curriculum of Philadelphia's Green Woods Charter School, that curriculum will be adapted to reflect the local school's connection to Frick Park.
"From the beginning, the idea has always been that this would be a community-based, place-based, local school," she said. "The kids will be using Frick Park as their outdoor laboratory."
The idea of using local connections has extended to the hiring of Mr. McCann, who will start today. Mr. McCann was born in England, but said he and his wife have lived in Pittsburgh's East End for 10 years.
"We like to think of ourselves as Pittsburghers now," he said.
He said he earned his bachelor's degree in education from Duquesne University and his principal's certification from the University of Pittsburgh, and has worked for the Pittsburgh Public Schools for seven years.
While he said he was excited to start his new job, Mr. McCann conceded there would be much for him to do, in addition to recruiting students and hiring faculty.
"Right away, we need to start sharing information about the school with the community," he said. "People want to know, 'How does the environmental curriculum work? How does a charter school work? What is the school day going to look like?' "
While Mr. McCann emphasized the importance of rigorous academics, individual learning plans and a family atmosphere, he paused to reiterate the importance of the school's connection to its surroundings.
"One of the great things about this school is that it's right where it is," he said.
Ms. Bour echoed this thought when she pointed out how the school's students will be able to take what they learn locally and, perhaps, apply it far beyond Pittsburgh.
"We're talking about kids who are going to change the world," she said.
The school will have two more open houses at which school representatives and Mr. McCann will be on hand to answer questions. They will be from 10 a.m. to noon May 10 and from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. May 13.
There was an open house Monday.
The programs are being held in the school building, 829 Milton St. For more information, call Kristan Abeshouse at 412-247-7970 or visit www.environmentalcharterschool.org.
Though the Environmental Charter School is accepting only letters of interest from parents hoping to enroll children, the appointment this week of a principal is expected to accelerate the admissions process.