Environmental Charter School seeks city school board’s OK to expand

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When the first group of 58 eighth-graders at the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park graduated last week, they officially were scattered to a variety of high schools, from Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 to City Charter High School to Penn Hills High School, but if the city school board approves an expansion of the charter, the eighth-grade Class of 2017 will be able to go to a high school that ECS will operate in the former Letsche building in the Hill District.

It would start with 75 to 100 ninth-graders and grow to about 400, one grade at a time. Pittsburgh Public Schools no longer owns Letsche.

Besides the high school, the charter school, which has 605 students and hundreds more on its waiting list, seeks to open a second K-8 school of similar size in fall 2015, starting with 288 students in K-3.

The elementary school proposal suggests using the now-closed Fort Pitt school building, which is for sale in Garfield.

The school district’s review team is expected to present its recommendation to the school board July 16, and the board is expected to vote July 23.

Charter schools are public schools that a local school district chartered, but they have their own board. School districts must pay a fee that the state sets for each student who attends.

Siblings of those already enrolled get preference for admission. When there are too many applicants, a lottery is conducted, giving partiality to those who live in the chartering district.

ECS has become so popular that recently only city residents have been selected in the lottery. About 28 percent of ECS students are eligible for subsidized lunch, compared to 71 percent in district schools. About 21 percent of students are black, compared to 54 percent in district schools.

ECS has been discussing expansion since last fall with community groups and Pittsburgh school board members.

Four of them — Cynthia Falls, Terry Kennedy, Carolyn Klug and Sylvia Wilson — have visited the existing school.

Ms. Falls, who was “very impressed with the learning environment,” said she needs to learn more about the proposal.

Ms. Kennedy, said ECS’ co-teaching impressed her, and she wants to conduct an objective evaluation.

ECS CEO Jon McCann and Nikole Sheaffer, director of innovation and development, believe all of the ECS schools can be models for ideas that could be used in district public schools and can play an important role in the city.

Ms. Sheaffer said that includes collaborating, encouraging people to live in the city, providing a place for community activities and looking at “innovation in new ways, trying to start the conversation around how we can change what schools look like and feel like.”

Mr. McCann said, “This isn’‍t about ECS saying arbitrarily we’re going to go into the neighborhood. … If the neighborhood wants ECS to be a part of that ecosystem, we’ll work together with the neighborhood.”

ECS opened in 2008 in the closed Regent Square Elementary School as an Imagine school after a related organization bought the building from the district for $3 million. The school hired Imagine as a management company but became independent when it jettisoned Imagine in 2012.

As ECS grew grade-by-grade, it needed more space, so it began renting the former Park Place School in 2012. That enabled it to have a Lower School at Park Place for K-3 and an Upper School at Regent Square for grades 4-8.

ECS offers small classes, many with two teachers in the room. Classes are designed to be interdisciplinary and interactive. At the Lower School, for example, a science teacher and an art teacher work together in a glass-walled “thinking lab.”

In the third-grade class recently, children were cutting symmetrical handprints out of construction paper, giving the art project a mathematical twist.

Math projects that the third-grade’s “geometry jam” produced, such as as a polygon made of marshmallows and toothpicks, were displayed in the hallway.

Each day, the third-graders’ program is divided into three main blocks: math, literacy and environmental literacy. They also have one of three other classes: physical education, music and thinking lab.

Teachers have the same students for two years in what is known as “looping.”

The space is designed to be ascetically pleasing with oriental rugs, window blinds that filter light but allow outside views, and wireless equipment that is hardly noticeable.

In the Upper School, there is a shift to more in-depth content, Ms. Sheaffer said.

“We’re not just marching through the content to get to the end of the year. There are definitely deep dives into pieces and authentic experiences, whether in a community or a park or an organization,” she said.

“Kids are not expected to sit in a class and open a textbook.”

The proposed high school description includes unconventional terminology. Teachers are learning agents. Ninth-graders are collaborators, 10th-graders are designers, 11th-graders are risk-takers and 12th-graders are change agents.

Interdisciplinary activities would take place throughout the day. Integrated math, rather than specific courses in algebra or geometry, would be offered.

For example, there would be “studios” for ninth-graders in which they would spend at least a quarter of their time in writing and communication, investigation and research and design and synthesis.

A health lab, town hall, learning workshop, a portfolio lab/​digital workshop, life coach check-in and a meeting with a small learning cohort could comprise the rest of the day.

“It looks beyond tests. It looks beyond a set of courses. We really believe our programming is about creating extraordinary people,” Ms. Sheaffer said.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

First Published June 26, 2014 12:00 AM

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