Baldwin-Whitehall board rejects charter school; appeal planned

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The Baldwin-Whitehall school board voted 8-1 this month not to approve the application of the Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School to start a charter school in the district. But the issue is far from resolved.

"We are waiting for the rejection letter, and then we will follow the appeal process," said the charter school's co-founder Melih Demirkan of Churchill.

"Eventually, the Department of Education will overrule the vote of our school board," said board President Martin Schmotzer, who cast the lone approval vote.

The nonprofit school would focus on students interested in a curriculum that fosters a global perspective and those whose native language is not American English.

The district has about 180 students enrolled in English as a Second Language classes in kindergarten through grade 12. They include those whose families have emigrated from Russia, Bosnia, Somalia, Nepal, Burundi and Myanmar.

"I don't like pulling people out of a diverse population like we have now and into a single-need community," said board member George Pry.

"It seems to me they're trying to make a small country within a country," said board member Diana Kazour, who emigrated from Lebanon 22 years ago.

District superintendent Lawrence C. Korchnak, who recommended approval with reservation, said his recommendation was based on the charter school having a viable financial plan; having a successful "sister school" in State College; and having a sound mission, objectives and goals.

He said his reservation is due to its negative impact on the district, including its finances.

He also said the charter school would be given the go-ahead by the state.

Mr. Demirkan, a civil engineer, said the site is being negotiated contingent on project approval. If secured, the charter school would be located in the former 23,000-square-foot Rolling Hills Manor Assisted Living building, 600 Newport Drive, Baldwin Township.

A public hearing on the application was held on Dec. 16 at Baldwin High School and drew about 100 people.

At that time, co-founder Melissa Nelson, a California University of Pennsylvania adjunct faculty member, said the district was chosen because Baldwin Borough has the highest refugee population in Western Pennsylvania.

Students from Baldwin Borough, Baldwin Township and Whitehall are included in the district.

Following the hearing, the district had 45 to 75 days to decide to grant or deny the application. Once rejected, the applicant can appeal to the state's Charter Appeals Board.

Students must take two language classes, besides fulfilling state requirements for mathematics, science, social studies and more.

There would be extracurricular activities such as Art Club, Soccer Club and more.

The first year would house 120 students in kindergarten through grade five, with grades six through eight added over the next three years.

While it would be open to students of any district, Baldwin-Whitehall students would be given preference.

Once a charter is drafted, the school becomes a separate district. And the home school district pays tuition for each student within the district who chooses to attend.

Mr. Pry and Ms. Kazour said they opposed funds being taken from the district and did not feel the charter school offered "the well-rounded, educational experience" of district schools.

Ms. Kazour said she came to the United States as a refugee to become part of the culture of a larger country. English should be mastered before any other languages are taught, she said.

Mr. Schmotzer said his vote was based on his support for choice and competition in education; his belief that taxpayer dollars will be used to fight the appeal, which the district will lose; and his belief that the charter school will not attract as many district students as its officials say because of the district's "tremendous" job in educating ESL and refugee students.

"I believe they will be happy to stay here," he said.

Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: .


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