Across the state, the issue of charter schools and the need for choice was a highly debated topic in the primary election for governor. In Pittsburgh, recent controversy has been focused on the proposal for a charter school in the vacant Burgwin School building in Hazelwood.

CHARTER ADVOCATE—Sarah Jameela Martin makes a statement at the Pittsburgh Board of Education public hearing, May 17.

“It’s a slow process in Pittsburgh because you have to put a proposal in and normally they will reject your proposal no matter how good it is,” said Sam Howard, executive vice president of Imagine Schools for the Midwest and Northeast. “Charter schools offer choice and choice doesn’t seem to be en vogue in the system.”

Imagine Schools is a Virginia-based organization currently operating 71 public charter schools in 11 states. The Community Service and Leadership Development Charter School would be one more addition to their list, but the Pittsburgh Public School District has turned them down twice.

“Children are underserved. They tended to focus on the fact that if we approve a charter school, it will take dollars out of their coffer. The only reason people move or change is because they are unsatisfied,” said Howard. “Children are not to be looked at as a commodity, we should be there to service their needs and if we’re serving their needs properly there shouldn’t be a concern.”

Sarah Jameela Martin, a retired school administrator who will be the president of the charter school’s board of directors, has similar concerns about how the children are being educated. She said the gender-based program will offer parents and students a unique charter option that also revitalizes the community.

“As an educator, my concern is there is a number of children who are underserved and have been for decades,” said Martin said. “I don’t want to spend all my time saying what the district has done. It’s just blatant in your face that the district doesn’t support choice. There have been no accepted applications in the first round in five years. The record speaks loudly.”

“We think that gender-based would be a good option for many of these underserved children and it’s coupled with community service and leadership development,” said Martin. “It is not simply separating boys from girls. If you don’t do it right, it won’t be successful and you have to educate the community on what it is.”

The proposal was first turned down in December of 2009 along with another proposal for a charter school in North Side. The next step will be a hearing with the State Charter Appeals Board.

“We did what we were told to do and then after we did it, they said we didn’t do it right. It appears they have done a lot to slow up and discourage this application,” Martin said. “We were to have a hearing in Harrisburg the first of June, but the district has now hired an additional law firm and the date has been put off to mid July.”

The school district rejected the application because they said it plans for developing a curriculum or hiring experienced teachers or a principal.

“The community service leadership development proposal was pulled twice because it didn’t meet the high standards necessary to be a viable charter school and meet the needs of the Pittsburgh students,” said Craig Kwiecinski, spokes­person for the Pittsburgh Public Schools. “There have been several articles that have raised concerns about the effectiveness of Imagine Schools.”

Such articles have raised concerns that Imagine Schools and the real estate developers they partner with are more interested in making money than improving achievement for Pittsburgh students. When looking at Pittsburgh charter schools, some boast higher levels of achievement while others fall below district averages.

Some Hazelwood residents are in favor of the school because they haven’t had a neighborhood school since Burgwin was closed in 2006. They see the charter as a perfect way to occupy a vacant building and entice new families to move into the area.

“The school presented I thought a very credible approach for reusing the vacant Burgwin School,” said Jim Richter, executive director of the Hazelwood Initiative. “It’s tackling several issues in the neighborhood all related to neighborhood preservation and development.”

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