Process Questions: Why are some city charter schools approved over others?

"The charter-school process is a very political one in Pittsburgh."

| January 15, 2014
Derrick Lopez, president of the Homewood Children's Village, stands outside the Afro-American Music Institute, one potential site for the group's proposed Collegiate Charter School campus.
- Photo by John Colombo
Derrick Lopez, president of the Homewood Children's Village, stands outside the Afro-American Music Institute, one potential site for the group's proposed Collegiate Charter School campus.

As Pittsburgh Public Schools considers closing another school to help avert a million-dollar budget deficit in 2016, three new charter schools are clamoring for their own share of students ... and of public tax dollars.

But getting approval for a charter school — a school run by an outside group that nevertheless gets public money from the district itself — can be difficult. Between 2008 and 2012, the district has approved only two charter schools out of 15 proposed.

"The charter-school process is a very political one in Pittsburgh," says Randall Taylor, a former school-board director who's been involved in two charter applications. Getting approved can depend on who you know, he contends.

The outcome of the latest round of charter applications may test that proposition.

The district is currently considering three charter proposals: the Homewood Children's Village Collegiate Charter School [HCV]; Robert L. Vann Charter School, slated for the Strip District; and Provident Charter School for Children with Dyslexia, to be located in the North Side.

Taylor is one of the backers for the Strip District school, but the Homewood proposal arguably has the strongest district ties: HCV President and CEO Derrick Lopez worked for the district from 2007 to 2011. He served as assistant superintendent for secondary schools and chief of high school reform during that time, before taking the HCV post.

While employed by the district, Lopez helped broker the relationship with HCV, under which the program provides social services like mentoring, coaching, and behavioral support to students in three area schools. The district, in turn, helps HCV secure funding by applying for grants from the U.S. Department of Education and other sources.

Of the three proposals, HCV would have the largest projected student body: Its application envisions attracting up to 1,000 students in grades 6 through 12. Modeled after an acclaimed "Harlem Children's Zone," in which educators make use of community cultural assets, the HCV plans to utilize existing buildings and institutions in Homewood as its campus. These will include the YMCA, Afro-American Music Institute, Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum and Carnegie Library.

"My experience with the Pittsburgh Public Schools, coupled with the two years that I have spent here in Homewood working with individual children and families, has given me a lens into the many challenges that our children face," Lopez says. "It is my hope that the district will recognize that work and the HCV's unwavering commitment to children."

If it does so, the district would be breaking from recent tradition. The only two charters approved by the district in the past five years were expansions of established charter brands. Urban Pathways K-5 is an expansion of the North Side Urban Pathways 6-12, and Propel North Side, while the first of its brand approved in PPS, is one of nine Propel charter schools in the area.

"You're certainly seeing a lot of support from the district for Propel," Taylor says. "The pattern of preferential treatment is clear, but no one is really saying why."

District Superintendent Linda Lane agreed to an interview for this story, but later canceled it. The district asked for a list of questions, but declined to say why some charters are approved over others, or provide examples of the rationale behind charters that were approved in the past.

The district's charter-review team makes recommendations on charter applications after conducting site visits, examining financial and student-performance data, and assessing the curriculum. The review team's recommendations are sent to the school board, which held a public hearing on all three current proposals Dec. 16.

The state's charter law constrains a school board's review of charter proposals — at least in theory.

"Charter-school law dictates reasons that can be used to deny an application," says Tim Eller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. A charter can be denied, for example, if it isn't financially viable, or if it doesn't comply with the state school code. It also can be denied if the application doesn't provide enough evidence to support its claims. If the charter is denied, the applicant can appeal to a state appeals board.

But, Eller adds, "The school district needs to rule on the merits of that application regardless of whether it feels a charter is warranted or not."

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Comments (9)

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Approve the charter application! We need to keep kids and families in the city. Otherwise everyone will vote with their feet and continue to shrink the city.

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Posted by Rauterkus on 01/15/2014 at 11:21 AM

Pennsylvania’s charter schools have a terrible track record of student performance. The latest national research found that charter students cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. That puts Pennsylvania in the bottom three states in the country. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013] The state’s cyber charter schools are particularly problematic, with not a single one making Adequate Yearly Progress last year. [PA Dept. of Education, Charter School PSSA Performance] Pittsburgh has some high-performing charters, but the state is also forcing us to keep others open that are clearly not serving our students well. See: http://yinzercation.wordpress.com/2013/10/…

The bottom line is, we should be able to give ALL our students the things good charter schools offer to just a select few: smaller class sizes, flexible teaching, innovative curricula, art every day, and more.

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Posted by Jessie Ramey on 01/15/2014 at 1:49 PM

PPS SHOULD be able to give ALL students a good school, but it is not.

SHOULD, WOULD, COULD isn't going to cut it.

HCV isn't a cyber charter. So that is more apples and oranges.

Furthermore, So Vo Tech was a school that was a low performer too. But so what? The kids at South Vo Tech were often at their third or fourth high school. They were then in a school that fit them. To shut South Vo Tech was bad and that is the same logic.

Kids and families don't frown up thinking, "Gee, I want to go to a charter school. Jeepers, I want to be in a cyber charter school." Perhaps the schools don't do as well for reasons. And every school can't do the same unless we get them all to fail. And, finally, it is way better to have a kid I cyber school and working to graduate vs. not in any school at all.

Charter schools are in high demand in Pittsburgh because PPS has fumbled the opportunities and do NOT deliver satisfying schools and educational setting for all its students.

The city needs the Homewood Children's Village as well as the other two charters that have applied in 2014. Godspeed to their approvals.

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Posted by Rauterkus on 01/15/2014 at 4:51 PM

The charter school debate is a complex one, and the author has just scratched the surface.
Frankly, I think the article spends more time calling into question HCV's motives than pondering the process by which charters are approved. Maybe the article should be retitled. One real issue bears mentioning. Charter schools have the freedom to cherrypick the promising students, and leave the school district with the rest, including those living in poverty, those learning English as a second language, and those with special needs. Students that fall into one or more of these categories are generally more resource-intensive, and when charters collect the average per-child reimbursement but don't do any of the heavy lifting, they leave the district to do more with less.
In the case of HCV, they are intentionally serving a very challenging community, which sets them apart. Since I don't know the details of the program and it's viability, I won't comment on whether the charter should be approved. But I will say that it should not be lumped in with other charter schools as we debate the merits of the charter system in general.
And to the author's jab about Derek Lopez's having worked for PPS as being patronage of some variety, I say shame on you. Ms. Nuttall, you try and help a community that has been overlooked and disenfranchised for decades, and then you can be eligible to pass judgment on what you characterize as a sweetheart deal. Have a little respect for those that are actually trying to help.

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Posted by Andrew on 01/15/2014 at 9:57 PM

My question is who else is stepping up to help Homewood? Leaders bring solutions not criticize the actions of others

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Posted by teacherfor life on 01/17/2014 at 6:40 AM

"Black students in poverty who attend charter schools gain an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year over their TPS counterparts . This shows the impact of charter schooling is especially beneficial for black students who in poverty."(Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013)

Homewood is a neighborhood that is 98.3% African American, more than one in three people in Homewood North and South are living in poverty.

Charter schools are a cancer for the Public School system, but lives are being lost.

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Posted by Ed Watcher on 02/07/2014 at 4:23 PM

Districts spend a fixed amount of tax money on each child who attends PPS. Currently for Pittsburgh, this amount is around $18,400, although that is likely to go down. PPS pays around $12,900 to charter schools per charter student, but that doesn't include things like transportation, which go in the other category. In a public school, 100 % of the money, other than debt and charter payments, goes to services to students. On the other hand charters, being private corporations, exist primarily to make a profit. Educating students is their second priority. So a portion of the charter school money is being used to line the pockets of the private entity that owns the school.

For this reason, anything that charter schools are doing can be done with less money by public schools, if they would only work with the community to address the needs of children.

Interesting take by Greater Public Schools Pittsburgh at http://www.gpspgh.com/storage/documents/GPS_Community_Schools_Education_Report.pdf

As for HCV being somehow different because it serves underprivileged children, there are many charter schools that attempt to serve that demographic. The demand is high for some alternative to the current schools in Homewood, as there are currently no good options. In one Stanford CREDO study, over half (54 %) of charter students got free or reduced lunches.

We need more studies about charter school effectiveness before we jump to any conclusions. The CREDO studies make them sound promising, but according to the federally funded National Assessment of Education Progress, "fourth-graders in charter schools scored 231 in mathematics on a 500-point scale in 2009, up from 228 in 2003. Fourth-graders in regular public schools scored 239 this year, up from 234 in 2003... Charter school scores rose to 275 this year from 268 in 2005; regular public school scores in that time rose to 282 from 278." So charter schools continue to lag slightly behind public schools.

Of course, we need to be careful about controlling for the makeup of the schools we are comparing.

Anyways, here's the answer to the charter school question according to Robert Maranto, a professor of education reform, in the Washington Post: "The people who said this was going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread were wrong. The people who said it would be a calamity were equally wrong."

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Posted by A Student on 02/28/2014 at 6:34 PM

The above quote, "charters, being private corporations, exist primarily to make a profit" is WRONG. Some charters are private. Many are NOT.

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Posted by Rauterkus on 02/28/2014 at 7:41 PM

I love the idea of the Homewood Children's Village, but not as an alternative to public education. The dropout rates and achievement scores for children in Homewood is unacceptable; however, a charter school is not the answer. It will siphon off students, impacting the public schools in the community - the next conversation will be about closures due to low enrollment. We need to use the HCV model of resources to strengthen and support the children and teachers already in Homewood schools.

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Posted by Shelly Brown on 03/13/2014 at 3:17 PM
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