Two years ago, LaWrene Robinson saw changes in her son Steven’s performance at school she didn’t like. So she pulled him out of the Steel Valley School District and enrolled him in the 4th grade at the Propel Charter School in Homestead. And the changes she’s seen since, she likes.

“I moved him because he was having behavioral issue and his grades were suffering. They went from As to Cs,” she said. “Here, he’s rebounded. He’s getting all As again, and he’s having fun.”

WELCOMING ATMOSPHERE—Propel Homestead Principal Bob Bischoff chats with kindergarten students on their way to lunch. (Photos by J. L. Martello)

Steven’s younger brother Gabriel will begin at Propel next year. His sister Eve, in 1st grade, likes the school too.

“It’s good. I get to do fun stuff, play math games and puzzles, and I like the writing classes,” she said.

Germaine Patterson, who now lives in Clairton didn’t even think about putting her son, Zakarah in Duquesne City Schools when they lived there six years ago. He came to propel in kindergarten and is now thriving in the fifth grade.

“I went through Duquesne schools and it wasn’t even an option,” she said. “This is a perfect fit for him. He had all As last year and, so far, the same this year.”

Fifth-grader Erica Jackson said she likes the math and writing classes too, getting As and Bs—and admitting under her mother Harriet’s gaze, one C. But she has a special fondness for art.

“Last year during the big snow storm, I drew a picture of it and my teacher Ms. Moss helped me send it to the White House,” she said. “After that I got to go to the Easter Egg Roll. I got to meet the president and shake his hand.”

Though exceptional, Eve, Erica, Steven and Zakarah are not the exception for African-American students at Propel—they are the norm.

Propel also operates elementary schools in Turtle Creek, Braddock Hills, Montour and McKeesport. It also opened a high school in Munhall in 2008.

Propel recently released a report showing that its Black students, on average, are outperforming their counterparts in their home school districts. According to the analysis, 52 percent more of Propel’s African-American students achieved reading and math proficiency standards than those in their home school districts.

Propel draws students from Woodland Hills, Pittsburgh, McKeesport, Steele Valley, Sto-Rox, Penn Hills, and Duquesne.

“Somebody’s always going to say we took the best kids. We have 2,090 students, three-quarters are eligible for reduced lunch, two-thirds are African-American and 16 percent are in special education,” said Executive Director Jeremy Resnick. “These Black kids are living on the same streets, going to the same churches and performing like students in Fox Chapel. They are destroying the stereotype.”

Bob Bischoff, a former teacher at Pittsburgh’s Oliver High School and an administrator in the Duquesne City Schools, has served as Propel Homestead’s principal since 2007. He said the experience is very different.

“The staff is committed to the children, to the families and to growth. We support our families because they support us so much,” he said. “And the kids actually enjoy coming to school. I greet them every morning and they are really happy to be here.”

Propel stresses an interactive, hands-on approach to learning, which might include using a calendar for 2nd-grade math class or having 5th-grade science students measure the sugar content of cereals by combining them with yeast and water.

The schools’ arts instruction also benefits from partnerships with institutions like the Civic Light Opera, which brings professional dancers to the schools to teach.

Director of Development Anne D’Appolonia said Propel is currently engaged in a fundraising campaign to install playgrounds at all five elementary schools.

“The properties have already been purchased, and we’re asking the communities to help with the design process,” she said. “We’re looking at raising $250,000 over three years. We want play spaces that are commensurate with our schools.”

Resnick said Propel is a public school and is funded based on the number of students it has, with 91 percent coming form local school districts, 4 percent from the U.S. government and 5 percent from the state.

“The only private funding we get is for pre-opening expenses for new building—desks, supplies, things like that,” he said. “But from a taxpayers view point we give more bang for the buck. We deliver more for less.”

Superintendent Carol Wooten said though their curriculum follows state standards for content at each grade level. She said other schools use the same curricula. Propel teachers are state certified like those in any other school.

“Asset Science is used in some of Pittsburgh’s schools. We have constant support with math and literacy coaches in every building. If something doesn’t work—we stop it,” she said. “Our delivery is customized for each student and we use technology—interactive touch-screens—in everything. I mean, that’s how kids spend their time out of school, so we have to be as up to date as they are.”

Wooten said, combined, Propel has a waiting list of 2,000 for all its schools.

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