Pittsburgh school board rejects charter school expansion at Frick Park

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Pittsburgh Public Schools board has unanimously rejected expansion plans by the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park that would have cost the district as much as $11 million a year and unanimously approved changes proposed by Manchester Academic Charter School and Academy Charter School.

"It's a missed opportunity for the city of Pittsburgh," said Jon McCann, CEO of ECS, in an interview after the vote. He vowed an appeal to the state Charter School Appeal Board.

ECS proposed opening another K-8 school at the district’‍s now-closed Fort Pitt building in Garfield in fall 2015 and a 9-12 school in the former Letsche School, which has been sold, in the Lower Hill District in 2017.

ECS now operates a K-8 school in two buildings, a lower school for grades K-3 in the former Park Place School and an upper school for grades 4-8 in the former Regent Square School. The state School Performance Profile gives the existing school a high academic score, 85.

In the ECS plan, the new K-8 school would begin with 300 students in K-3, growing to 600 in K-8 by 2019. The high school would start with 75 ninth graders and grow to 300 students in 9-12 by 2021.

Charter schools are public schools that a local school districts charters but have their own board. School districts must pay a fee set by the state for each student who attends. In 2013-14, Pittsburgh Public Schools paid about $12,403 for each regular student and $27,270 for each special education student who attend charter schools.

At that rate, the first year with 300 students in the new K-8 ECS would cost Pittsburgh at least $3.7 million if all of the students were from the city. With both new schools fully operating, it could cost $11 million a year.

Under state law, school districts cannot reject a charter school application based on cost. The 2014 district budget already includes $54.9 million for charter schools, nearly 10 percent of the $529.1 million budget.

Only board member Bill Isler gave an opinion during the meeting. He noted both new schools were on the same resolution and said he was not satisfied with the proposed high school curriculum, saying it was "broad outline" lacking specificity. He said a more detailed curriculum was required when the district opened its own new schools.

The district's charter school review team had found the proposed ECS charter amendments "are sufficient with minor exceptions in the financial and students with exceptionalities plans."

The board motion to deny stated the request failed to provide "sufficient information."

The school board approved the Manchester Academic Charter School‘‍s request for a temporary location change to the Sarah Heinz House on the North Side for grades 6-8 for 2014-15 and 2015-16.

The board also granted charter changes sought by the Academy Charter School, located in the Carrick area. The Academy has been serving only students actively involved with the juvenile justice system, but the school sought to expand that to include students who are at risk of such involvement. The charter also specified Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver, and the school sought to expand that to the entire calendar. It also wanted to reduce the number of school days from 180 to 172 as well as permit suspensions for in-school behavior problems and eliminate extracurricular activities and instead provide transportation to home districts for activities.

ECS had 605 students and hundreds more on its waiting list in 2013-14. It opened in 2008 in the former Regent Square School, which the school district sold to an organization related to Imagine Schools for $3 million. ECS since has discontinued using Imagine as a management company but continues to rent the building. In 2012, it added space by renting the former Park Place School from a private owner.

In its current K-8 school, ECS offers small classes that are designed to be interdisciplinary and interactive.

The proposed high school description includes unconventional terminology, with teachers called learning agents and ninth-graders called collaborators. Interdisciplinary activities would take place throughout the day. Integrated math, rather than specific courses in algebra and geometry, would be offered.

At public hearings last month and this week, some parents of district-operated schools opposed the expansion, including Pamela Harbin, whose two children attend Pittsburgh Liberty K-5 in Shadyside. Ms. Harbin said that the current ECS serves fewer students living in poverty, have disabilities or are English language learners that the district schools do overall.

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. A state profile indicates zero percent are English language learners, compared to about 3 percent in district schools.

ECS selects students based on a lottery, giving first preference to siblings of students already enrolled and the next preference to city residents.

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