Aug. 14, 2017

Charter schools were founded to increase student achievement. Are they delivering on the promise?

By Mary Niederberger

Aug. 14, 2017

Charter schools were founded to increase student achievement. Are they delivering on the promise?

By Mary Niederberger

First grader Terrin Scott, 7, looks up from his workbook during class at Manchester Academic Charter School on April 24, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Part of the series

The Charter Effect

Traditionally, the 20th anniversary is celebrated with china but we are marking the 20th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s charter school law with transparency and depth. While other local media outlets have reported on the sweeping change charter school choice has had on students and traditional school districts, our series will expand on that by teasing out the root of the tension between charters and other public schools: money and what appears to be differing standards of accountability.

This series will expose and explain the data and records behind the charter schools operating in Allegheny County.

If you are a parent in Allegheny County living in a school district that is under-resourced and low-achieving, it’s likely there’s a charter school set up nearby.

Most of the 27 brick-and-mortar charter schools that will operate in the county this fall are in or near districts that struggle with both academic achievement and finances and, in some cases, safety and violence issues.

But assessing the success of a charter school can be difficult.

By purely academic standards, School Performance Profiles compiled by the state and standardized test scores can provide ratings. But other factors, such as school safety and size, can come into the mix when parents are making their decisions.

School Performance Profile [SPP] scores for the 2015-16 school year issued by the state Department of Education, which are based on a scale of 107 points, fall into the 30s and 40s in some of the schools within the school districts of Pittsburgh, Woodland Hills, McKeesport, Wilkinsburg, Sto-Rox, Penn Hills, Duquesne and Clairton.

That poor academic performance opens the door for charter operators to set up shop with the promise of providing better educational opportunities, and families have flocked to them so much so that many charters have waiting lists.

“There should be no excuses for our school districts and none for our charters.”

Propel, which operates the largest charter school network in Allegheny County with waiting lists for most, has schools that perform among the highest and lowest in the county. Some of their schools outperform the districts from which the students come, but not all.

Young Scholars of McKeesport draws 150 of its 180 students from the McKeesport Area, Duquesne and Clairton districts. The charter school academically underperformed all schools in those districts, with an SPP score of 34.9.

Based on academic performance, Downtown-based City Charter High School stands out as having the most impressive record of achievement among charter schools in Allegheny County, and among all schools in the City of Pittsburgh, with an SPP score of 89.8.

City Charter High School senior Jaimere Washington talks with math teacher Katrina Mancuso while taking a quiz on May 26, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

SPP scores are compiled based on such factors as standardized test scores, attendance, graduation rates and third-grade reading proficiency.

In addition to City Charter High School, three other local charters have SPP scores above 70, which is considered a passing grade by the state Department of Education. They are Propel East at 79.7, Propel McKeesport at 77 and Propel Montour at 71.6.

At the other end of scale, aside from Young Scholars of McKeesport, are Propel Hazelwood and Propel Northside, with scores of 44 and 46.8 respectively and Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh with an SPP score of 48.3.

Two other brick-and-mortar charter schools scored lower, but they serve educationally vulnerable populations. They are The Academy with an SPP score of 24.7, which enrolls court-adjudicated students, and Hill House Passport Academy, at 36.8, which provides a diploma retrieval program for students who have dropped out or were expelled from their district schools.

What people may not know is that even though traditional public school districts and charter schools compete in a way for students, districts are responsible for granting brick-and-mortar charter schools permission to operate within their boundaries. With that, the districts also have the ability to inspect their academic programs and vote to shut them down if they aren’t performing well. It just rarely happens.

Difficult to compare

Measuring academic achievement of charters against those of traditional public schools is not as simple as it may seem.

Because brick-and-mortar charter schools draw students from a small number of school districts locally, comparing charter academic scores to all local districts is not an accurate measure, according to Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, which supports school choice.

“It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison,” he said.

A more accurate comparison is with the districts from which the students come, said Cetel and Cindy Walker, dean of the Duquesne University School of Education who also sat on a charter approval board in another state.

The demographics of students in the brick-and-mortar charter schools in Allegheny County show on average that 65 percent of students are black and 71 percent are economically disadvantaged — segments of the population that traditionally underperform academically.

That compares with countywide averages of 20 percent black enrollment and 37 percent economically disadvantaged.

“I feel a rock in the pit of my stomach because the kids who are in those schools deserve better.”

The charter school that doesn’t fit the profile of majority black and economically disadvantaged is Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, which is 69 percent white and 30 percent economically disadvantaged.

Environmental Charter School sixth graders (left to right) Billy Wilson, Ava Van Meter, David Weisfield and Sean Cefola play "Come as You Are" by Nirvana during an outdoor music class at the edge of Frick Park on May 23, 2017. The park is adjacent to the school. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In Allegheny County, the districts who have the highest numbers of students attending charter schools include Pittsburgh, Woodland Hills, Penn Hills, Wilkinsburg, McKeesport Area, Duquesne, Sto-Rox and Clairton.

When comparing charter schools to the districts from which they draw their students, City Charter High School, which enrolls 85 percent of its students from the Pittsburgh Public Schools, still stands as the highest-achieving as it outscores all of the Pittsburgh district schools.

The Pittsburgh district had SPP scores that ranged from 83.2 at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy to 36.3 at Westinghouse Academy 6-12.

In addition, the graduation rate at City Charter, which is 97 percent, exceeds all of the Pittsburgh district high schools, whose graduation rates range from 96.5 percent at Pittsburgh CAPA to 63 percent at Westinghouse.

State scores for brick-and-mortar charter schools in Allegheny County

The Pennsylvania Department of Education issues School Performance Profiles annually to assess academic performance and growth of students. They are based on a scale of 100 points, with the possibility of seven extra credit points. The state considers 70 to be a ‘passing grade.’

School 2012-13 SPP 2013-14 SPP 2014-15 SPP 2015-16 SPP Third-grade reading proficiency, 2015-16 Graduation rate, 2015-16
City Charter High School 81.2 73.1 78.8 89.8 n/a 97.2
Propel East 78.5 75.6 n/a 79.7 52.17 n/a
Propel McKeesport 82.8 83.8 n/a 77 75.56 n/a
Propel Montour 80.4 74.2 n/a 71.6 56.82 n/a
Young Scholars of Western PA 67.7 73 n/a 69.6 60.53 n/a
Propel Braddock Hills 62.5 53.6 47.8 62.4 54.55 77.23
Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship 69.6 65.1 n/a 61.5 58.33 n/a
Environmental Charter School at Frick Park 85 72 n/a 61.1 74.65 n/a
Manchester Academic 73.4 69.2 n/a 60.1 42.86 n/a
Propel Pitcairn 65.5 62.9 n/a 59 52.94 n/a
Urban Pathways K-5 52.8 58.3 n/a 55.5 35.9 n/a
Propel Homestead 58.7 64.4 48.2 55.4 35.9 78.95
Urban Pathways 6-12 61.4 64.2 63.2 50.9 n/a 87.18
Urban Academy 85.5 69.5 n/a 48.3 40.54 n/a
Propel Northside 61.9 81.6 n/a 46.8 28.21 n/a
Propel Hazelwood n/a n/a n/a 44 42.86 n/a
Hill House Passport Academy n/a n/a n/a 36.8 n/a n/a
Young Scholars McKeesport n/a n/a n/a 34.9 26.67 n/a
The Academy 22.5 34.7 24.5 24.7 n/a 47.92

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education School Performance Profiles
Note: School Performance Profiles based on the 2016-17 standardized testing and other data are slated to be released this fall. In 2014-15, the PSSA tests given to students in grades 3-8 were aligned with the Pennsylvania Core curriculum, which caused a drop in scores in several schools throughout the state.

Theodore Dwyer, chief of data, research, evaluation and assessment for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said there is no disputing that City Charter High School is a high-performing charter. “They are doing an awesome job with kids,” Dwyer said.

But he pointed out that because it is a charter, it does not have a unionized teaching staff, which gives administrators more control over programs, and that it does not serve students with severe special needs. City Charter CEO/Principal Ron Sofo acknowledged that parents of students with severe special needs do not enroll their children in City Charter High School largely because it has a full inclusion program. That means students with severe special needs are in regular classrooms all day where special education teachers team-teach with regular education teachers. There are no separate areas for special services such as speech or physical therapy or sensory calming.

But even charters that don’t have high SPP scores can be considered a better educational option when compared with schools in the same area.

Cetel said an example would be Manchester Academic Charter School, with an enrollment that is 96 percent black and nearly 100 percent economically disadvantaged. Its SPP score of 60.1 and third-grade reading proficiency rate of 42.86 percent would not be considered high-achieving.

But compared with Pittsburgh King K-8, just 1.5 miles away on the North Side, it appears to be a better option. King has an SPP of 42.6 and a third-grade reading proficiency rate of 15.71. King’s enrollment is 83 percent black and 70 percent economically disadvantaged.

In 2008, Manchester Academic was named a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. The awards were given to schools with high test scores or dramatic increases in achievement.

In its recent SPP, Manchester received a 100 percent performance measure for closing the achievement gap in literature and science among traditionally underperforming students. Pittsburgh King K-8 received zeroes in both categories.

(From left) Bruce Allen, Caleb Bush and Lyndon Butler received the "Longevity Award" for attending Urban Pathways since kindergarten during a fifth-grade moving up ceremony on June 1, 2017. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

It’s a similar story with Urban Pathways K-5 in Downtown Pittsburgh. Though its overall SPP score of 55.5 is not impressive, its test scores showed 100 percent improvement in closing the achievement gap in math and science among all students, including its historically underperforming students. The student body at Urban Pathways K-5 is 97 percent black and 94 percent economically disadvantaged.

Academic results at Urban Pathways 6-12, a separate charter school operated across Penn Avenue from Urban Pathways K-5, are not as positive.

At Urban Pathways 6-12, only 11 percent of the students scored proficient on the state algebra Keystone Exam, 36 percent on the literature exam and 20 percent on the biology Keystone.

Kathleen Garland, principal and CEO of Urban Pathways 6-12, said it’s difficult to reach proficiency because many students enter the school below grade level.

Parents' choices

But for some parents, the choice isn’t all about academics.

Simone Davis of Mt. Washington enrolled her son in Urban Pathways K-5 and daughter in Urban Pathways 6-12 after they experienced bullying at their neighborhood school, Pittsburgh Whittier K-5.

“In terms of the curriculum, I would not say it is better than (traditional) public school. I look in terms of safety and how my child feels,” Davis said.

“I felt the need to go somewhere where they felt more comfortable. Ever since we moved [to the charter schools], my daughter has gotten straight As and my son is more sociable.”

Her daughter, seeking a more challenging academic curriculum, transferred from Urban Pathways to City Charter High School in ninth grade. She is now a rising junior.

“I look in terms of safety and how my child feels.”

Similarly, Angela Romanello placed her 16-year-old foster son at Urban Pathways 6-12 when he transitioned from a private school, where he received emotional support services.

She said she felt Urban Pathways provided a “small supportive environment” and that her son had a successful first year there in 2016-17.

“There’s a lot of factors. These kids are real people and going to school, a [school score] is not always an indicator of how good of a school they are,” Romanello said.

Some of the best, some not

Propel is the largest operator of charter schools in Allegheny County, with a projected enrollment this fall of about 4,000 students in 13 schools. It is similar in size to the largest suburban school districts in the county.

It draws its largest population of students from the Pittsburgh, Woodland Hills, McKeesport Area, Penn Hills and Sto-Rox school districts.

Propel CEO/Superintendent Tina Chekan said in a June interview that stable staffing has contributed to the successes at Propel East and Propel McKeesport, while other schools, including Propel Northside, have had teacher turnover adversely affect student progress.

Propel Superintendent/CEO Tina Chekan looks at kindergartner Kennedy Parrotte's writing assignment at Propel Braddock Hills as classmate Harvey Scott (left) watches. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Neither Chekan nor any other Propel representative was made available for comment on this particular article.

Propel East, which teaches students in grades K-8, is located in the Woodland Hills School District. Its SPP score of 79.7 compares with scores among district elementary and intermediate schools that range from 36.1 at Edgewood Elementary to 69.8 at Woodland Hills Academy.

Propel McKeesport’s SPP score of 77 for grades K-8 outperforms the McKeesport Area School District elementary, intermediate and middle schools at varying degrees. The closest SPP score at a traditional public school in McKeesport is 63.2 at Twin Rivers Intermediate.

The most dramatic difference between Propel McKeesport and the McKeesport district is at the middle school level where McKeesport’s Founders Hall has an SPP of 39.3.

At the bottom of the Propel achievement scale are Propel Northside and Propel Hazelwood. Their scores rank with the bottom 25 percent of Pittsburgh schools.

“I feel a rock in the pit of my stomach because the kids who are in those schools deserve better,” Dwyer said.

Walker said it’s possible that Propel has become too large to replicate its successes.

“With Propel getting too big, you just start running into the same issues you run into with a big urban district,” Walker said.

The curtain closes for intermission after students played a rendition of "Crazy Train" at the Propel All-Star Musical Showcase at Propel Hazelwood on May 25, 2017. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Low scores

The lowest-scoring charter school that offers its program to the general population of students is Young Scholars of McKeesport.

Young Scholars Principal Halil Demir blamed the low score on the fact that it was the school’s first year and said many of the students in K-4 entered below grade level.

Young Scholars of McKeesport Charter School, with an enrollment of 140 students in the 2016-17 school year, operates from a building rented from the St. Nicholas Byzantine Church on Shaw Avenue. (Photo by Stephanie Hacke/PublicSource)

“Our expectation was not really high for the PSSA for the first year. But it will be a work in progress. We’ve made adjustments on that,” Demir said.

James Fogarty, executive director of the A+ schools advocacy group, said being in operation for only a year is not an excuse for poor academic performance.

“If they are not getting the job done, the school board [of the district that granted the charter] has the right to close them down,” Fogarty said.

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Pittsburgh Public Schools voted to close Career Connections, a charter high school in Lawrenceville, in 2012, claiming it didn’t meet the conditions of its charter and didn’t meet requirements for students’ academic performance. The school appealed to the Commonwealth Court, but lost and closed in June 2014, after 15 years of operation. Its most recent SPP score was 43.8.

Fogarty said he would not be surprised if Pittsburgh makes more efforts to close low-performing charters since hiring a director of charter schools in June. Lisa Augustin will be in charge of charter school data, research, evaluation and accountability.

Dwyer said Augustin’s first priority will be to make sure that all of the charter students for whom the Pittsburgh district is being billed are actually attending those charters. But, in the future, the district hopes to assess the academic progress of students who were in charter schools and return to the district and whether they are proficient to that grade level.

“It will be a work in progress. We’ve made adjustments on that.”

In addition, the district plans to create an accountability dashboard that will include academic measures from all of the district’s schools and charter schools so that parents can compare performance.

As for future attempts to close charter schools, “that’s a policy decision the board has to make,” Dwyer said.

Fogarty is hoping that Pittsburgh and other school districts that have issued charters will be more diligent about making annual inspections of the schools and that those inspections can prompt two actions: Collaboration with successful charters and closure of low-performing ones.

“There should be no excuses for our school districts and none for our charters,” Fogarty said.

StoryMary Niederberger

Mary covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or

PhotographyRyan Loew and John Hamilton

Ryan is PublicSource's visual producer. John is a photography intern for PublicSource.

EditingHalle Stockton and Mila Sanina

Halle is PublicSource's managing editor. Mila is PublicSource's executive director.

Web developmentNatasha Khan

Natasha is PublicSource's interactives & design editor.