Despite its lengthy waiting list, the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park (ECS) was recently denied permission to expand by the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) Board of Directors.
ECS is a K-8 school created in 2008 to provide alternative education with a focus on the environment. According to ECS Director of Innovation and Development Nikole Sheaffer, the school has a yearly waiting list of 400 to 500 students, and sought to expand to serve that demand.
ECS currently has 605 students at its two locations in the former Park Place School and former Regent Square School. ECS filed an application in May to start a second K-8 school in Garfield and a high school in the former Letsche School in the Lower Hill District.
“Because we have more applicants than we have spots, we utilize a lottery, and it’s a public lottery,” Sheaffer explained. “This year, we had 511 families apply and only 41 spots available.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools paid out $54,936,157 in 2014 from its budget of $529,129,356 for students to attend charter schools. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, PPS could spend up to an additional $11 million annually on charter students if the ECS’s application were approved.
According to PA laws governing charter schools, districts are not allowed to turn down charter school applications based on cost. As it is, charter schools receive less money per pupil than PPS would spend on a student educated in a district school.
“ECS, and any charter school, doesn’t divert dollars from the public system,” said Sheaffer. “It receives around 70 percent of the per pupil cost of the Pittsburgh Public Schools or another school district, and the remaining 30 percent stays within the district for transportation and administrative fees.”
According to Sheaffer, the PPS’s Education Committee, which consists of educators from the area and other experts, reviewed ECS’s application and recommended its approval.
“We submitted over 1500 pages of evidence from curriculum to philosophy to research around this model, and supplementary examples,” Sheaffer said. “From an educational standpoint, the experts in the field, the people that really dug into the work and scoured it from holes, believe that the educational program was both innovative and very thoughtfully put together.”
The PPS Board of Directors disregarded the committee’s recommendation. Board members were not available for comment on why ECS’s application was denied.
Sheaffer said Pittsburgh needs to embrace alternative education to make the city attractive to new families.
“It’s a mindset shift,” Sheaffer said. “I think that the city of Pittsburgh is grappling with a lot of really complicated issues, and seeing us as part of the solution rather than part of the problem is a mindset shift that really needs to occur.”
ECS is currently working with an attorney and intends to appeal the decision with the PA Department of Education.