At the Pittsburgh Public Schools' public hearing on Feb. 23, Homewood native Arnold Perry called on the school board to approve a charter school he believes will have a positive impact on children and families throughout the city.
Perry was among four who attended the meeting to speak in support of the K-8 Robert L. Vann charter school, vowing not to rest until it is approved. But two days later, the board voted against the charter school.
"I'm so disgusted," Perry said a few days after the vote. "We're going to keep pushing. We need to figure out a way to help these kids."
But if recent results are any indication, a charter school — a public school run independently of the district — might not be one of them. In a climate where school districts and charter schools compete for much-needed funding, advocates say it has become nearly impossible to get a charter school approved in Pittsburgh. Although the approval process is supposed to be objective, critics say decisions are influenced by the controversy surrounding charters, instead of the merits of individual applicants.
- Photo illustration by Heather Mull
"As long as the charter school meets the requirements, generally the school district has to approve it," says Tim Eller, head of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "Unfortunately, what we're seeing in the past few years is districts [that] are pushing back on charter schools."
Now the only hope for the Vann school lies with the Pennsylvania Department of Education charter appeals board, which is designed to serve as an independent decider in charter approvals. But here too, charter advocates say bias persists, and recent statements by Gov. Tom Wolf indicate that getting a charter approved could become even more difficult at the state level.
"I wouldn't say the prospects are too good for getting a charter approved," says Randall Taylor, a former Pittsburgh school-board director who has been advocating on behalf of the Vann school. "It looks bad for the charter-school movement."
The Robert L. Vann proposal calls for a K-8 "micro-society" school with a curriculum that would engage students by making connections between the classroom and real life. The school would have an extended school year with 190 days and would incorporate elements of the nationally recognized Harlem Children's Zone, which provides students with wrap-around services such as health care and after-school programs.
"We have a lot of retired educators who are part of it," says Taylor. "We plan to give the parents and the community a real plan and a real stake in their children's education. That's very different from anything the district is doing and anything the district can do."
Charter schools are controversial; critics say they unfairly drain funds from traditional public schools without, in many cases, educating students any better.
Although the Vann school would serve students throughout the city, it would be based in Homewood, a neighborhood with struggling academic institutions. At Faison K-5, only 26 percent of third-graders scored proficient or advanced in reading on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests last year. At Westinghouse Academy, the neighborhood's 6-12 school, only 35 percent of eighth-graders were proficient or advanced in reading.
"When I visited Faison, I wasn't impressed, and I realized the Pittsburgh public schools didn't have a lot to offer. I'm not exaggerating — it's a mess," says Perry, who will serve on the Vann school's board if it's ever approved. "I looked at what [Vann wanted] to do in terms of working with our children and I was inspired."
This is the second time the board has denied the charter school's application. Last year, Robert L. Vann was among three charter applicants, all denied by the board. This year, the charter school was the only one to apply. Since 2008, the district has approved only two charter schools out of 15 proposed.
According to the report by the charter application-review team, the application was deficient in eight of the nine criteria used to evaluate applications. The criteria, which comes from the state charter-school law, includes community support, financial viability and curriculum.
The review team deemed the application's curriculum deficient because the proposal included curriculum only for grades K-2. According to the proposal, the school would open with students in grades K-2 and later expand to K-8.
"It is mandated that the curriculum that needs to be submitted, needs to be submitted for every grade that's being proposed," says Lisa Augustin, the district's director of assessment, who led the team. "We go by the documentation that was submitted to us by the deadline."
The review team also said the school would not be financially viable because the application did not include a description of insurance plans. And according to budgets provided in the application, the school's monthly cash flow would be negative for the first seven months of operation.