As Lawrenceville charter school closes its doors, a sense of loss prevails

High school's shuttering expected to displace hundreds of students

C.J. Nemit, a sophomore at Career Connections Charter High School, cried when he first heard his school will close this week.

After a negative experience at Pittsburgh Brashear High School in Beechview, which has about 1,400 students, Mr. Nemit, 18, of Arlington, had found his niche at Career Connections in Lawrenceville, which has 225 students. He repeated ninth grade there and is finishing 10th grade.

To him, the school is "almost like a family unit." As to where he will go next, he said, "I have no idea."

Tim McIlhone, CEO since March 2011, said, "We're going to really make sure we help him transfer."

Founded by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, Career Connections opened in 1999 with a school-to-career focus, starting with ninth grade and expanding a grade per year. It already was on the ropes when Mr. Nemit arrived.

While it had renewed the school's charter in the past, the board of Pittsburgh Public Schools voted unanimously in spring 2012 against renewal, saying the school serving grades 9-12 didn't meet all of the conditions of its charter, didn't meet requirements for student performance, and didn't provide expanded choices or serve as a model.

In its latest state School Performance Profile, Career Connections received a 43.8 of 107 points for an academic score. On state tests last year, 25.86 percent of its students were proficient in math, 31.03 in reading and 8.62 in science.

State data showed that 78 percent of the students are black, 85 percent economically disadvantaged and 21 percent in special education.

The school unsuccessfully appealed to the state Charter School Appeal Board and then to Commonwealth Court, which last month upheld the revocation. After spending what Mr. McIlhone estimated at about $80,000 on the fight, the school called it quits.

In the Commonwealth Court ruling, President Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote that there were "material violations" of the charter. He said the district is within its rights to deny renewal when a charter fails to meet performance standards. He also said the district can rely on the results of the state tests to make that determination.

Judge Pellegrini also said the daily schedule and academic calendar, which were described in the charter and later changed, were "legally binding," and changes would have required an amendment to the charter. He also agreed with the appeal board that the school's "isolated interdisciplinary activities" weren't enough to constitute an interdisciplinary curriculum as promised in the charter.

However, Judge Pellegrini did not agree with the appeal board that students choosing the dual college enrollment part of the program were denied internships promised in the charter, noting the charter lists internships as one of several ways to get work-based opportunities. He also found that the courses offered were not substantially different from those described in the charter.

Charter schools are public schools that are chartered by local school districts but have their own boards. Under state law, school districts must pay a fee set by the state for each resident who enrolls.

As its run comes to a close, students and teachers are feeling the loss.

"I think it was a bad decision," said senior Desttenae Oliver of Swissvale.

She said she chose Career Connections because it was hard for her to focus in big schools and big classes. Classes at Career Connections generally have 15 or fewer students. Through the school, she has enrolled in college classes and has earned about a year's college credit.

While she is among those who will graduate Thursday, she said she still will miss the school because she was counting on coming back after she goes to Clark Atlanta University to see teachers for help as other alumni have done.

"Who's going to help me?" she asked.

Sophomore Tamar Johnson of Lawrenceville said, "I had such a good relationship with my teachers. I like being in a smaller classroom."

He doesn't know where he will enroll, but his first choice is the Urban Pathways Charter School in Downtown, followed by the Pittsburgh Allderdice High School engineering magnet in Squirrel Hill, followed by his neighborhood-assigned school, Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12, also known as U Prep, in the Hill District.

At Career Connections, junior Brianna Clifford of the North Side said, "You get more help with the teachers. It's like one-on-one."

She said she doesn't want to go to her assigned neighborhood school, Pittsburgh Perry High School on the North Side. She may try to get into another district school, such as Milliones or Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 in East Liberty, or she might even move in with a relative in West Virginia, if necessary.

Scott Witon, who has taught math at the school since 2002, said, "I love this school. I feel like I'm making a difference here."

Tom Barnes, a social studies teacher for nine years at the school, talked about the rapport he has built with students. "I know when a kid's having a bad day," he said. "I can help that. I'm as much a counselor here as a teacher."

Mr. McIlhone said the uncertainty of the school's charter has affected enrollment. He said the high point for enrollment was about 300, but typically it ran around 265. The year started with 236 and has fallen to 225.

Although about 80 percent of its students live in Pittsburgh, the school's current enrollment includes students from 12 districts.

By the end of April, the school was running about $200,000 in the red in its operating budget. It also has a fund balance of about $300,000 in cash. School officials will try to balance the books as final payments are made and assets are liquidated. The building is leased from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.

Mike Hepler, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania and a member of the charter school's board, said, "I think we're proud of what we accomplished during the tenure with the charter school. The biggest satisfaction we have is the influence we've had on so many young people and their lives."

The Pittsburgh school board previously forced two charter schools to close: Renaissance Academy of Pittsburgh Alternative of Hope -- known as RAPAH -- in East Liberty, which closed in 2007, and Career Connections Charter Middle School, which opened and closed in fall 2006.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.

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