Charter Schools: Making The Grade?

Part Six: Need for high school debated.

Caption: Elizabeth Hocker, left, and Rachel Eirmann work on a recumbent bicycle project. Centre Learning Community Charter School is located at 2643 W. College Ave. in State College. CDT/Nabil K. Mark 


FRIDAY, JULY 22, 2011


Rachel Eirmann didn’t want to leave Centre Learning Community Charter School.

“I will REALLY miss my friends next year (we are all going to different high schools), but I will keep in touch with them,” Eirmann, from Pleasant Gap, wrote in a goodbye message posted on the school’s blog.

“I already have half of their phone numbers. … I will be calling them so that my group of friends and I don’t split up. I will miss CLC so much … it was the best school ever!”

To be clear, lots of students in district-run schools say they love their schools, too. But the appreciation that students like Eirmann have for Centre Learning Community Charter or other schools often leads to a question from parents: Why doesn’t Centre County have a charter school for high school students?

Although about half of the state’s charter schools serve students in grades nine or beyond, none of the county’s four charters go beyond eighth grade.

“High school is a totally different ball game,” said Levent Kaya, CEO of Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School.

There are several logistical challenges to opening a high school charter. It would have to attract teachers qualified to teach, say, high school physics; compete with the comprehensive

programs of district-run schools such as State College, which offers classes from engineering to Latin as well as its own alternative education program; and otherwise wade into uncharted territory.

“We’ve surveyed the parents on a regular basis to ask what they think. And there’s always a couple who want us to add kindergarten. And there’s always a couple who want us to add high school,” said Carolyn Maroncelli, CEO Nittany Valley Charter School, which has 48 students in first through eighth grades. “In general, I’m very leery about getting bigger, because what we do best is be small.”

Read more: Need for high school debated.


Part Five: Parents of charter school students praise alternatives to districts.

Teacher Mark Toci shows Veronika Vovchenko, center, and other students how to work on a bike chain while teaching a unit on building a recumbent bicycle.  Centre Learning Community Charter School is located at 2643 W. College  Ave. in State College.  CDT/Nabil K. Mark




The bullying started after elementary school for Davia Dorman. Her mother, Laura Dorman, worked with school leaders to address the issues, and said the teacher went above and beyond the call of duty to try to help. But still the bullying continued.

“She was really overwhelmed and intimidated,” Laura Dorman said.

So Dorman pulled her daughter out of the Penns Valley Area School District and started looking at alternatives.

In interviews, parents and children offer a variety of reasons for leaving Centre County’s district-run schools — which perform above average or better on state tests — for charter schools.

Some leave because they have specific problems with a school. Others are drawn to the charter schools because of what they offer academically, whether it is more foreign languages, a laptop for every student or a smaller community.

Geography can play a role, too. In 2003, when the Penns Valley Area school board considered closing Miles Township Elementary School, some parents said they’d send their children to Sugar Valley Rural Charter School if the school closed.

“I feel that every parent, every student, has a plan in mind,” said Jeanne Knouse, a State College administrator who acts as a liaison between the district and local charter schools. “I think each charter school has something different and has something we don’t, just as we have something that they don’t.”

Read more: Parents of charter school students praise alternatives to districts.


Part Four: The value of testing.

Caption: Katie Tune Pierrot helps eighth grader Willy Zayas with science work. Nittany Valley Charter School is located at 1612 Norma St. in State College. CDT/Nabil K. Mark May 20, 2011 




During the past decade, Penns Valley Area School District has increased its scores on state standardized tests — so much so that former Gov. Ed Rendell honored Penns Valley as one of the 50 most improved districts in the state in August 2009.

Last year, 11th-grade students at Penns Valley ranked in the top 15 percent of the state in both reading and math.

But success, as measured by No Child Left Behind, hasn’t prevented students from leaving for charter schools.

The number of Penns Valley students opting for charter schools has increased during the past decade, and depending on the figures you use, has increased slightly or stayed flat for the past three years.

Between 5 and 6 percent of students in the district attend charter schools, a higher percentage than in any other Centre County district. Earlier this year, 83 Penns Valley students were enrolled in a charter school.

Of those, 21 attended Sugar Valley Rural Charter School, where 11th-grade math and reading scores rank in the bottom 10 percent of the state.

Twenty-six attended Pennsylvania Cyber Charter, an Internet school where 11th-grade math scores are in the bottom 15 percent of the state.

“It is frustrating,” Penns Valley Superintendent Brian Griffith said. “It’s frustrating when charter schools are underperforming local school districts and local school districts and local taxpayers are still required to pay the bill.”

Read more: The value of testing.


Part Three: Charter costs at heart of school debate.

Caption: A crowd of education supporters listens as Penns Valley superintendent Brian Griffith talks at a rally for public education in Talleyrand Park on Tuesday, April 26, 2011. CDT/Christopher Weddle 


TUESDAY, July 19, 2011


One math teacher and one former math teacher walked into the Bellefonte Area Middle School cafeteria one night this spring and made their pitch.

“We need your support,” said Brian Griffith, who began his career teaching high school math and is now the Penns Valley Area School District superintendent.

He continued: “I’m going to tell you that I think competition, in general, has made us better. I’m going to tell you that I really believe in a lot of No Child Left Behind — so I might be stepping on some toes, but we had no way of measuring our success before. But I can tell you that as a taxpayer, I’m a bit upset when my money is going to a school system that is failing. And many of our charter schools are.”

The meeting marked a new chapter in the competition between charter schools and traditional public schools.

Griffith and Bellefonte Area High School math teacher Shaun McMurtrie were asking Bellefonte school board members to participate in a new marketing and advertising campaign to compete with charter schools.

They planned to launch a website, organize a rally, sell buttons, create advertisements and coordinate activities through Central Intermediate Unit 10, a regional educational service agency. Griffith asked each district to contribute $4,000.

“It is an unprecedented move that the (Intermediate Unit is) doing, getting all of us together,” said McMurtrie, a teacher at Bellefonte Area High School and union rep, “and it’s been a really interesting opportunity.”

Read more:

Charter costs at heart of debate.

How rising  charter school costs compare to rising employee salaries and benefits.


Part Two: Charter schools’ influence unclear.

Caption: Tenth grader Katrina Shawley, right, and other students work on assignments at the Bald Eagle Area High School Cyber School Academy, May 3, 2011. CDT/Nabil K. Mark 


MONDAY, JULY 18, 2011


Katrina Shawley considered dropping out of Bald Eagle Area High School.

“I was frustrated with the style of learning,” the 16-year-old said.

She opted to instead enroll in the district’s cyber program. She spent the past year as a 10th-grader working online, either at home or in a small classroom across the street from the high school.

“Just our little group — there’s no drama or anything,” Shawley said. “It’s pretty cool.”

That option didn’t exist five years ago.

Officials in Bald Eagle Area, like those in Bellefonte, Philipsburg- Osceola and Penns Valley area school districts, have in recent years created online programs largely in an effort to lure students back from cyber charters, or prevent students like Shawley from dropping out. State College will launch a cyber program this fall. “What we always say is we take it as a compliment that districts see the success we’re having … in that format,” said Joe Lyons, executive director of communications at Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School.

Educators at traditional public schools have debated, and continue to debate, the effectiveness of cyber charter programs. But it’s clear that competition has led districts to change the way they teach some students.

What’s less clear is whether brick-and-mortar charter schools have spurred the same sort of innovation.

That was one of the goals of the state law passed in 1997 that authorized creation of charter schools: To provide a place where new ideas could be tried and innovation could flourish to the benefit of all.

But it’s not easy for those innovations to spread in districts where leaders have little or no interaction with their charter school peers.

“There’s no collaboration at all. … If I saw a neighboring charter school administrator, I wouldn’t know them,” said Penns Valley Superintendent Brian Griffith, “whereas I know every single superintendent in the three-county region and I can pick the phone up and call them if I wish.”

Read more: Charter schools’ influence unclear.


Part One: Charter schools fought to be an option.

Caption: Fourth grader Aden Branstetter works on math problems at his desk. Nittany Valley Charter School is located at 1612 Norma St. in State College. CDT/Nabil K. Mark May 20, 2011 


MONDAY, JULY 18, 2011


Elizabeth Eirmann knew middle school could be a challenge for her son.

She figured that if Samuel fell behind then, it would be hard for him to catch up later. And she didn’t want him to get lost in a crowd.

“I take education seriously for my kids,” she said. “I’m their advocate.”

So she started looking for options outside the Bellefonte Area School District, where he attended elementary school.

As a parent in Centre County, she had more choices than most Pennsylvania families.

Centre County has four “brick-and-mortar” charters, publicly funded schools that are similar to traditional public schools in many ways but are run by independent boards. Another — the K-12 Sugar Valley Rural Charter School in Clinton County — is near the Centre County border and draws about 20 students from Penns Valley each year.

State College Area  spends more on charter schools than 95 percent of Pennsylvania school districts, while Penns Valley spends more than 80 percent and Bellefonte spends more than 75 percent.

And only 12 counties, out of 67 statewide, have more students in brick-and-mortar charter schools.

The story of how brickand-mortar charters emerged in Centre County involves several Penn State Ph.D.s, a half dozen legal appeals, and a retired Army Ranger who wanted to return a favor to his wife.

Read More:

Charter schools fought to be an option.

About the series.

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