Jhe River Valley School Board’s Feb. 24 denial of a request to a group hoping to open a charter school in Saltsburg is the latest in a long line of blows delivered by the majority of the board to citizens and the city .
In a story that’s unfolded over years — and a fight that’s been repeated for decades — the two towns linked by a school district have once again found themselves at odds over a reconfiguration plan in 2020 and 2021.
This plan, enacted this school year, moved Saltsburg Middle/High School (SMHS) students to the Blairsville campus, renamed the district to River Valley of Blairsville-Saltsburg, and allowed both communities to retain elementary schools.
During hours of public comment at a hearing required by the Pennsylvania Department of Education on January 13-14, 2021, passionate parents, business owners, community leaders, elected officials and taxpayers pleaded with the Board of Directors and the State Department of Education to allow SMHS to remain open. At that same hearing, Superintendent Phil Martell announced plans for a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) academy at SMHS. Most recently, on February 24, Martell offered an Early Childhood Academy for pre-kindergarten students.
While both initiatives are innovative and allow students to stay in their Saltsburg community, the charter academy would provide all students with the opportunity to obtain a unique education closer to home.
Those opposed to the reconfiguration have raised concerns about longer bus rides, quality of education, adverse effects on the local business community, loss of Saltsburg’s identity, and more.
And so parents and community leaders – after several unsuccessful lawsuits to stop the reconfiguration – came up with a new plan: the Saltsburg Charter Academy School.
The founding coalition of parents, business partners and others submitted a nearly 200-page application to the council, proposing a school for primary and secondary students.
Under Pennsylvania’s charter school law, parents and others may seek to establish a school for many reasons, including “to enhance student learning; increase learning opportunities; encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods; create new professional opportunities for teachers; and providing parents and students with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities available.
“At the heart of these principles is the idea that charter schools will serve as laboratories for innovation,” according to PDE.
And as Nate Baird, a member of the River Valley School Board, which supports the initiative, said in a recent email: “The charter school gives parents and students the opportunity to choose where and how children receive their education. That’s called freedom, that’s what this country is supposed to be.
We believe the candidates made a strong case for establishing a charter school for the benefit of children in the Saltsburg community.
The school’s mission is “to equip K-12 students to become lifelong learners, successful professionals, and responsible citizens by using innovative teaching techniques with a strong community bond with Saltsburg”.
“The charter school believes that an abundance of artistic and interdisciplinary opportunities instills confidence and creativity in every child, both of which are essential to their growth as a learner.”
Classes would include Spanish and Mandarin in World Languages, Keyboarding and Coding in Technology, Photography, Studio Art and Digital Design in Arts and Music; choices such as film and animation; and AP and honors courses in the categories of math, language, science, and social studies.
Projected student numbers, according to the group, are listed at 191 in the first year, then 297, 401, 486 and 510 the following four years. By the fifth year, the school should employ 28 teachers.
The school board rejected the request on February 24 on multiple grounds by a 5-3 vote based on geography – with board chair Rick Harper and members Anthony “Tim” Canzano, Connie Constantino, Molly Stiles and Mary Whitfield refusing. Requirement; Baird, Beverly Caranese and Jessica Clawson in favour; and Melanie Pantalone abstaining with two charter school board parents – claiming applicants failed to provide address and description of physical facility, failed to show it provides a learning environment uniquely different from the district and did not establish how it would support and plan for student training.
We recognize that the app had some shortcomings. But the River Valley School Board could have taken a different approach, working with the group to resolve any issues.
“There is some validity to a few of the points raised by counsel,” charter school board member Paul Schwartz said in an email this week. “At the time of filing the application, we did not have all the answers. But these are minor issues. The argument that the proposed program is not distinctive is simply not true.
Schwartz addressed the board last month about those shortcomings and provided his written comments.
“Another of your reasons for refusal is disconcerting; the suggestion that the app does not provide a unique and different learning environment is inconsistent with a careful reading of the app.
Schwartz said the school “will engage all students in project-based learning, and those projects will be grounded in the local community. In other words, students will learn the principles of geology, geography, economics, history, anthropology, agriculture, sociology, biology, business management and ecology through individualized writing projects that explore the past, the present and future of the Saltsburg area.
While the state would take money from the district and give it to the charter school — roughly $15,000 for each student who switches enrollment — it’s impossible to put a price tag on an education received. in a hometown school and the sense of community it fosters, not just within the school grounds, but throughout the city.
Saltsburg is passionate about its desire to enable students to continue learning in a local environment.
As River Valley School Board member Caranese, representing Saltsburg voters, puts it, “The joy is gone. … Our school was the heart of our community.
The struggle is not over; Charter board officials expect an appeal process and respond to board concerns.
The charter school could be an olive branch in a deeply divided district while providing parents and students with the flexibility to choose an education option they feel is right for their family.
Unfortunately, it was used as fuel for the fire.
“The Way We See It” features a weekly editorial on local topics of importance to The Gazette’s editorial board.