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Academy Charter School interested in buying former Arlington school

 

The Academy Charter School is interested in purchasing the closed Arlington Elementary School from the Pittsburgh Public Schools District to move their high school from Agnew Street to Arlington.

"We intend to be good neighbors," Sam Costanzo, chief executive director of Academy Charter School (ACS), told members of the Arlington community last week.

ACS is negotiating with Pittsburgh Public Schools to buy the former Arlington Elementary School on Jonquil Street and reopen it as a charter high school for grades 8 to 12. Currently, Academy operates a residential program for girls along with the charter school for boys and girls on Agnew street on the border of Baldwin and the city.

Mr. Costanzo said they have been looking for another location for the charter school because child advocates don't like having boys in the charter school in the same location as the girls' residential program.

ACS was founded 14 years ago with 40 students who were experiencing behavioral problems.

Enrollment is now capped at 150 with about 30 percent of the students attending ACS sent by the courts, many for truancy issues, he explained. The remaining students are there because parents choose to send their children to the charter school.

ACS is open to any student in the county. Each year they are audited by both the state and Pittsburgh Public Schools.

All students are brought to school by van, with door-to-door service. Teachers and school counselors drive the vans. Students are also required to wear a school provided uniform. Students must ride the van to school and aren't permitted to drive or be driven by someone else.

This past year there were about 40 staff members at the school with 22 to 25 teachers and the remainder administrative, counselors and other staff. Mr. Costanzo said the starting salary for a teacher at the school is $36,000 to $38,000.

Mr. Costanzo said many of the students are there because they need a different setting. At the charter school class size is capped at 15 students. When asked about their success rate, he said 22 out of 24 seniors graduated this year. He added they may not have all graduated on time, but they graduated.

Questioned about the Grade Point Average for the students in the school, he said the students' GPA go up because they are attending class. Noting some students had missed 80 days of school before attending ACS. Those students may still miss 20 days, "it's not good, but it's better."

The ACS administrators acknowledged while their students are doing better, they typically don't qualify for the Pittsburgh Promise tuition assistance. For those students who complete the program at Academy Charter School, they can receive a $2,000 scholarship to attend a trade school.

Some Arlington residents were concerned about the school's students "walking away" during the school day and wondered about security.

Mr. Costanzo said they have never had a student walk away from the charter school.

Bill Styche, principal at ACS, added the school doesn't have security, but do have a Dean of Discipline. In the 12 years he has been at the school, he has never had to call the police for an incident.

Like many schools though, the school has a metal detector at the entrance.

Mr. Styche emphasized the charter school will be a regular school with no plans to put in a residential component in Arlington. Mr. Costanzo said there wasn't a need for a residential school in Arlington.

Questioned about how many students were ordered to the school by a judge, Mr. Styche said all the students are there because their parents registered them there. However, he confirmed about 30 percent of the students are in the court system or have a probation officer.

"But, any other school in Pittsburgh has probation officers or kids in their school that are on probation," he added.

An Arlington resident asked if the kids in their current charter school "get out" and sit on nearby porches and run through the woods and yards.

Both ACS administrators replied their students have never left the school and caused problems in the neighborhood.

Another resident took issue with their statement saying he spoke with the Agnew Street neighbors and heard their complaints about the school. He said the students were wearing uniforms and sandals.

The ACS officials maintained it wasn't their students, but rather those from the residential school. They confirmed the residential students wear sandals to discourage running and also uniforms.

Mr. Styche offered to meet with the community as often as was necessary and would provide his cell phone number to anyone.

Asked if the students would be outside at any time, the principal said only coming and going to the vans and during gym class. The only other time they might come and go was to go on a field trip.

He added all the students aren't dismissed at the same time. Students leave the school one van at a time.

Questioned why Arlington school when there are vacant school buildings all over the city, Mr. Styche said they looked at many locations throughout the city. What made the Arlington School desirable to them was the building was move-in ready outside of some new painting.

Mr. Costanzo added they would also be willing to purchase some of the equipment at the school.

He said they have been investigating buying the school for about a year. Last year, they offered the school district $380,000 for the building, but the district wanted $800,000 and the negotiations stalled.

This year, the district again asked for bids on the property setting a minimum bid of $250,000, Mr. Costanzo said. ACS put in an offer of $250,000 which the school district again turned down for being too low even though it was their minimum bid.

Cindy Falls, School Board Member for the area said, "this is not a done deal."

At times the meeting got contentious with supporters and critics trading charges. Eventually it was decided to have another meeting and invite Pittsburgh Public School officials to participate and explain the timeline and process for negotiating with Academy Charter School.

The next meeting will take place on Monday, July 17, 6 p.m. at the Henry Kaufmann Center, corner of Salisbury and Fernleaf streets.

 

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