Sto-Rox residents debate charter school

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Propel charter school's application to open a K-12 school has caused mixed emotions in the Sto-Rox district encompassing McKees Rocks and Stowe.

The school board and more than 200 attendees listened to comments about a proposed Propel West charter school for more than two hours last Thursday. The hearing in the high school auditorium had 20 registered speakers but additional people were allowed to speak.

Darcy Mueller, a school nurse with the district for 13 years, is concerned with students missing out on activities such as marching band or something as simple as the free physicals they offer. She also said she found the charter school's lottery system "particularly disturbing."

Sto-Rox teachers Heather Johnston, Joseph Krajcovic, Carrie Palermo, Bob Spehar, Paula Dugan, Bill Rizor and Dawn Marshall, among others, also addressed the audience.

Propel parent Lee Ann Munger said that the lottery system Propel uses to accept new students "is not cherry-picking," but is "drawn out of a hat."

Ms. Munger feels that public school choice is best and she believes in Propel so much that she traveled to Homestead for years so that her children could attend Propel. They now attend Propel Montour, a K-eight school, in Kennedy.

Many of those speaking against the charter school were concerned about what could happen if the already underfunded district lost more students to Propel West.

Sto-Rox families would pay no tuition to attend Propel. Cost to the district would be $11,000 per student annually, said Jean Mayes, board member. Currently, Sto-Rox spends approximately $8,000 per student, she said.

According to state Department of Education data, the district spent $7,277 per elementary student and $12,154 per secondary student in 2009-2010. The district had 1,375 students registered that year, with 584 in elementary, 409 in middle school and 382 in high school.

For the 2011-2012 budget, the district lost $1.2 million in funding due to state budget cuts. Accountability Block Grants, which fund such programs as full-day kindergarten, partial charter school reimbursement and Educational Assistance Program, which provides tutoring for students in need, were cut by the state.

During the hearing, Jeremy Resnick, executive director and Propel founder, stated that the demand for another charter school is there.

He referred to a petition with 251 signatures indicating interest in having a Propel school in the area. Of those signatures, 234 were from Sto-Rox residents and 131 checked a box indicating they had children who were interested in attending, he said.

"Bringing Propel in here is a Band-Aid on the situation," said resident Cheri Zielienski. "What happens when that Band-Aid falls off?"

Propel supporters discussed the need and demand for a local Propel school, saying it is about choice and having the right fit for their children.

"We just want what's best for what our needs are. Propel is not for everyone. ... The Propel model is right for my child," said Elena Archey, a district resident whose son attends seventh grade at Propel Montour.

"We're not trying to dissolve the district and we aren't trying to force anyone to attend these schools."

Students also spoke out against the proposal, asking for the application to be withdrawn. Senior Chelsie Carter is concerned that opportunities for students such as extracurricular activities and sports would no longer be available.

"The teachers at Sto-Rox care more about the students than some of the parents do," she said. "A lot of our kids don't have a mom or dad or a home."

D'Andrea Wassick, also a senior, discussed the requirement for the district to pay for every district student who attends Propel and the sports programs that would suffer.

Sto-Rox graduate and Stowe resident Cindy Nickel McGowan has a son attending Montour Propel. She is more concerned with her son's education than athletics saying, "It's not the situation. It's about choice [of education]." She said Propel teachers helped her son in July so he would be ready for the start of school in August.

If approved, the school would open with 400 students in grades K-four and nine-10 the first year. A grade would be added each year at each level until enrollment hits 800 students; with 600 at the K-eight level and 200 in grades nine-12.

Currently, there are 1,383 students enrolled in the Sto-Rox district.

Propel students attend school for 190 days from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each day. This gives students 25 percent more instruction time than the state requires, said Mr. Resnick.

Propel's first school opened in 2003 with 180 children occupying a small hospital basement in Homestead. In 2011, more than 2,300 K-12 students attend Propel schools in Homestead, McKeesport, Kennedy, Munhall, Turtle Creek, Braddock Hills and on the North Side.

A potential site for Propel West is located in the P&LE Business Park in McKees Rocks. Mr. Resnick indicated Propel would prefer to rent space for the school inside an existing Sto-Rox building.

The board will vote on or before Nov. 23 on Propel's charter application. A legislative voting session is scheduled for 7 tonight in the high school cafeteria, Valley Street, Stowe.


Sonja Reis, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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