April 23, 2013 | Vol. 73 No. 39

Shouting match interupts MWCDC forum on possible charter school

The Mount Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC) held its regular monthly forum meeting last Thursday, where the topics of energy efficiency and public education were not the only things raised; several voices were raised, too.

A shouting match broke out after a team of educators and other interested parties presented information on the charter school they’ve been working to bring to the former St. Mary’s Academy building on Bigham Street in Mount Washington.

In the quiet before the storm, the team presented slides on general information, such as the definition and benefits of a charter school, as well as on the specific model, goals and operation of the school it hopes to open, which would be called Mount Washington Community Academy Charter School (MWCACS).

The slideshow was opened by team member Tracy McKenna, a Mount Washington native and certified educator with teaching and curriculum experience in numerous states. Ms. McKenna explained a charter school is an “independent tuition-free public school allowed the freedom to be more innovative.”

Highlighting key words, Ms. McKenna elaborated on what it means to say a charter school is “tuition-free” and “innovative.” As per the former, Ms. McKenna said the tuition for each charter school student is paid by diverting the public school monies allotted for that child away from the public school system and to the charter school, thereby making the student’s tuition publicly-funded by local, state and federal dollars and assigning to parents no out-of-pocket tuition expenses other than the taxes they already pay.

“Innovative,” Ms. McKenna continued, “means that there is more freedom in selecting the curriculum,” which team member Patricia Masisak stressed as one of the benefits of charter schools.

Ms. Masisak brings to the MWCACS project approximately 20 years of teaching experience. Her career achievements include working as an opening faculty member of a pilot program in Boulder, Co., and serving a nine-year term as the founding academic director for a school she helped open overseas.

From these teaching posts, Ms. Masisak said she has seen first-hand the many benefits of using an innovative curriculum.

“I’ve been in many school settings where teachers must open to a certain page in a textbook because of what day of the week it is, regardless of whether or not the students fully understand what was on the previous page,” she said.

“At a charter school, (teachers) can adjust the curriculum to meet student needs, and are given room to take an extra day or two to ensure that their students have mastered previous concepts and are ready to move on.”

Other charter school benefits to which Ms. Masisak pointed include smaller class sizes and longer school days.

“The school day would only be 20 minutes longer (than the PPS school day),” Ms. Masisak noted. “But 20 minutes a day for 180 days really adds up, to result in a lot of extra classroom time that helps put charter school kids at an advantage.”

To illustrate that advantage, Ms. McKenna and Ms. Masisak presented slides of data and research techniques that showed charter schools outperforming comparable traditional public schools in terms of increased academic achievement; improved behavior and reduced violence; and lower drop-out rates.

According to Ms. Masisak, charters are also distinguished by their development and use of “next generation learning models,” wherein “learning is expanded beyond the walls of the classroom by offering students opportunities to learn through their community and (other) immediate environments.

“This allows students to learn problem-solving skills that translate to a variety of subjects and learning situations, including future learning situations beyond those using the technologies and resources currently available.”

Ms. Masisak commented real world learning and translatable skills are further accomplished by the “theme” a charter school adopts in addition to the core academic subjects it offers. Common themes include performing arts, career readiness and entrepreneurial learning.

The particular theme that would be adopted at MWCACS is a microsociety theme, which Ms. McKenna said would create “a microcosm of the real world inside the school, where students would prepare to be hired for a job, determine their own form of government and learn the value of a dollar by developing their own form of currency, managing bank accounts, calculating taxes and buying and selling in a way that mirrors real life.”

Noting the microsociety theme has received national recognition as a comprehensive school reform model, that its public supporters include the U.S. Department of Education and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and that the Imagine Penn Hills charter school employs this theme, Ms. McKenna clarified microsociety learning would be but one element in the MWCACS school day.

“Microsociety would be the last period,” she said, “with a common core focus throughout the rest of the day.”

Ms.McKenna explained “common core focus” is a term with special meaning in the teaching industry. It refers to the in-depth study of a few discreet subjects, rather than the skimming of several broad subjects, and represents MWCACS’s intended move away from the current standards of teaching in Pennsylvania.

A move away from current state teaching standards is not a move away from testing standards, Ms. McKenna emphasized. Indeed, she said charter schools are held accountable to the same local, state and federal testing standards, and use alternative teaching standards in an effort to not only meet, but exceed, such expectations.

Another way MWCACS would try to exceed expectations is by having rigorous hiring practices that require a teacher to be an expert in his or her field (in addition to being a certified teacher).

But before MWCACS can hire its teachers, it must first get approved for charter school status.

The school first submitted its original application to the PPS District in Nov. 2012. After a public hearing the following month, the district approached the team for more materials, which were presented in February 2013, at which time MWCACS’s application was denied.

The team received a certified letter detailing the reasons for denial in March, and subsequently began work on its revised application, tentatively scheduled for resubmission to PPS in late-April. If the school board accepts the resubmitted application, MWCACS’s doors will open in fall 2013.

If, however, the resubmitted app is again denied, the team could resubmit a second time or appeal to the state level. Either option would postpone the school’s opening until at least fall 2014.

So… What was all the shouting about?

At the close of the team’s presentation, Ms. Masisak invited questions from the audience in a breakout format, where team members would situate themselves at various tables and residents could approach them based on the area of their involvement in the project—and so began the shouting match.

John Ward, who said he was one of the original founding members for the project, raised his hand and his voice, to assert: “These people need to know what’s really going on!

“They won’t get answers if you break up into smaller groups. We all need to hear what is asked, and what your answers are.”

A few other residents chimed in as well, to indicate that they too wanted full disclosure and wanted to hear what other people had to ask/say.

To mediate crosstalk, both MWCDC President Jon Lusin and Executive Director Jason Kambitsis repeatedly asked for decorum, and requested people keep their voices down and speak in turn.

Despite these calls to order, Mr. Ward went on to address the audience at large: “You are all being misled. This group would have you believe this school is going to open when, in reality, it’s not.

“Let me remind you—the application was unanimously rejected by the school board. And, they haven’t mentioned that there is an outstanding legal issue here… The board won’t even look at a resubmitted application until that issue is resolved.”

No clarification was made, by Mr. Ward or by team members, as to what the legal issue is.

Other voices in the shouting match were heard to say things like, “Give it a rest, John… This is all for our kids,” and, “Come on now, this is just an informational presentation. They don’t have all the answers yet.”

Another heated conversation was ignited when a resident broached the hot topic of profit potential.

“There’s money to be made here,” the man observed, “and I want in on it as a stakeholder.”

In response to this remark, Ms. McKenna noted, unlike the Propel charter schools in other Pittsburgh communities, MWCACS would be a “non-profit grassroots effort, not under the thumb of any financially-motivated corporation.”

To this end, Greg Falvo, director of finances and development for the pending project, reassured the audience the board of trustees has dedicated itself to reinvesting every dollar earned right back into the school.

Once order was restored, additional resident questions were taken and a final caveat was issued. Ms. McKenna reiterated the school’s application has not yet been approved, and stressed parents should go about enrolling their children in the appropriate Pittsburgh public school or private school of their choice for the 2013-14 school year.

“For your children’s sake(s), don’t bank on us getting approved status this year,” she stated. “Enroll them as you normally would, and, if we get approved, you can withdraw them (from PPS) later.”

Though talk of MWCACS took up the bulk of Thursday’s meeting minutes, it wasn’t the only topic on the table. Also discussed was energy efficiency, as presented by Kendra McLaughlin.

A 10-year Mount Washington resident and energy advocate, Ms. McLaughlin was recently appointed the MWCDC’s Ambassador to Energy Efficiency and will serve as its liaison to the G-TECH Re-Energize program, working together with folks from other Pittsburgh communities to develop and implement concrete action steps to improve energy usage, safety and resource quality in Western Pennsylvania.

In her oration, Ms. McLaughlin provided several energy- and money-saving tips, such as green home improvements (like Energy Star appliances, duct sealant, low-flow showerheads and Watt Choice light bulbs) and mindfulness of use. She said she is available to meet with any Mount Washington resident who would like to learn more about energy efficiency.

For more information on Re-Energize, and for a list of ways to save energy and money in the home, visit http://www.reenergizepgh.org.

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