Fae Kenney is considering moving her children to a charter school.
Her children are in the McKeesport Area School District. She said when they come home at the end of the day and she asks what they learned, she doesn’t like their answers.
“My youngest child, her school is more one-on-one with her, so she always has something to say about school,” she said. “My other two are just, ‘Well, we just learned whatever the teacher put on the board.’”
Considering pulling them from their neighborhood public schools is a complicated and stressful decision, she said.
It’s a decision many parents weigh, whether they’re dissatisfied like Kenney or they think their child would be better suited for a specialized approach offered by some magnets and charters.
Education advocacy groups A Plus Schools and PennCan hosted a school choice fair Saturday at the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District. With the help of school representatives, parents learned about the application process for charter, magnet and private schools.
Parents, like Kenney, asked teachers and administrators about what makes each school unique.
Lori Yurkovich, a teacher with Spectrum Charter School in Monroeville, said her small school specializes in working with students with autism spectrum disorders.
“We work on transitioning them into getting a job, either a competitive employment, maybe a workshop employment or getting them ready for either a two- of four-year college program,” she said.
One of Kenney’s daughters has an individualized education program, or IEP, for a learning disability. She said one-on-one attention is a consideration.
Charter schools are notorious for promoting their teacher to student ratios, saying smaller class size means more individual attention for students.
Ty Beck, a counselor at Urban Pathways 6-12, said every classroom at the school has two teachers.
“There are only about 340 students in our school,” she said. “So that small classroom atmosphere is something a lot of parents like.”
Kenney also took note of teacher demographics. Only one of her children has ever had an African American teacher – most of their teachers are white.
“You can’t really relate to us,” she said. “So you don’t know what they’re going through. Our kids think one thing and it’s really not that way. I want a reality for them so that they’re not expecting life to go this way and it is not that way for us.”
She said she wants her kids to have a relationship with their teachers and trust them.
City Charter High School promoted its teaching rotation, where a teacher follows the same students from 9th to 12th grade.
PennCan hosted a similar school fair last year with charter schools. This year, magnets and private schools were invited.
Matt Rodgers, of Greenfield, said he would consider keeping his 5-year-old son in the public school system. He’s concerned about science education and asked teachers at the fair about their STEM programs.
“I think that’s a major deficit in all of our schools from kindergarten up to grade 12,” he said. “I think we’re falling behind in many ways.”
Ebony Latham, project manager of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ magnet office, said many parents she spoke to had children entering kindergarten. She encouraged them to think about their child’s special interests.
“I know it sounds crazy to think about what my child going into Kindergarten might be interested in, but believe it or not, without realizing it you see things that your child shows interest in and those are things we want them to explore when it comes to the magnet programs,” she said.
Latham encouraged parents to start with their neighborhood school, but said magnets like CAPA, which specializes in the arts, and Sci-Tech, focusing on science, technology, engineering and math, offer students options.
“Once you get up in the grades, one thing we want to discourage families from doing is using magnet as a way to avoid neighborhood schools,” she said.
James Fogarty, executive director of A Plus Schools, said the education groups wanted to introduce parents to the available options.
“From the parent perspective, you’re not seeing district, charter, you’re not seeing some of those political things,” he said. “You’re just seeing, ‘I have this beautiful child that I want to have a quality option for school.’ That desire for quality school cuts across race, cuts across socio-economic background.”
Because after all, he said, there are a broad range of factors that make a school a good fit for a student beyond test scores – which he said are not always indicative of good teachers.
For Kenney it’s a lot to consider.
“I’m just going home to read over a lot of stuff,” she said. “Because I do want to get them a better opportunity.”