Sylvia Marketing & Public Relations co-founder Ken Kilpatrick cited in an article on powerful charter schools in Pennsylvania as a statewide charter school spokesman in a major city newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

TONY LARUSSA   | Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010, 12:00 a.m.

Benefits of charter schools in Pennsylvania
Sylvia Marketing & Public Relations Co-Founder Ken Kilpatrick Cited by Major Newspaper as Spokesman for Charter Schools in Pennsylvania

The fact that 14-year-old Jasmine Brooks spent five years on a waiting list for the Manchester Academic Charter School didn’t discourage her mom.

“I wanted Jasmine in the charter school since fourth grade, because I wasn’t satisfied with the public school system,” said Joyce Brooks. “But I couldn’t get Jasmine in (a charter school) until this year, when she was accepted to City Charter High School.”

The good news for the Brooks family continued when 5-year-old Kennedy got a kindergarten slot at Manchester Academic, which has 195 students and a waiting list of about 400.

“The girls know that going to charter school will be a lot of hard work, but we think it’s worth it,” Brooks said.

Brooks is not alone in her desire for an alternative to traditional public school education. Enrollment in charter schools in Pennsylvania jumped 34 percent to 73,700 between 2004-05 and 2008-09, according to state education officials.

Maria Runco of Morningside said her family didn’t really miss the income lost when she quit her job to stay home and work with her daughter Alexis, 12, and sons Santino, 11, and Anthony, 14, after they were enrolled in the online PA Leadership Charter School last year.

“My husband’s job requires that we live in the city, but we really didn’t even consider sending our kids to public school because of all the problems they have,” Runco said. “I was working to pay the tuition at a Catholic school. However, one of our sons needed extra help that they weren’t able to provide. So we decided to try cyber school. It’s working out well for us.”

An estimated 26,000 children across the state are on waiting lists for one of the 128 charter schools in Pennsylvania, according to Ken Kilpatrick, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools.

Kilpatrick said factoring in the children whose families have given up trying to get into a charter school because of the lack of availability increases the waiting list by about 25 percent. The state education department does not track the number of children waiting to get into charter schools in Pennsylvania.

“There’s a reason why the state enacted school choice and allowed charter schools to operate,” Kilpatrick said. “There was a realization that a need was not being met by the traditional public school systems. There is an inherent nature in charter schools that gives parents more of an opportunity to get involved in their children’s education.”

Charter schools in Pennsylvania are public schools managed by parent, community or educational groups and given a charter to operate by school districts. They are not bound by many traditional mandates, giving them more flexibility in their teaching methods and curriculum.

William Martin had firsthand experience of the benefits of a charter school when he sent his daughters, Morgan, 7, and Madison, 5, to Manchester Academic.

“My 15-year-old son Ken went here and did really well,” said Martin of McKees Rocks, while attending a meeting at the school Tuesday night. “They have an excellent program that challenges the kids.”

State education officials regard charter schools in Pennsylvania as integral to improving education.

“We think for parents seeking things that might not be available at their local schools such as a curriculum with a heavy emphasis on math and science, or where the focus is on creative and performing arts,” said state Department of Education spokeswoman Leah Harris said.

Nationally, 65 percent of charter schools have waiting lists, up from 59 percent in 2008, according to an annual survey conducted by The Center for Education Reform. The survey found that in some cases, the waiting lists for charter schools are more than three times the schools’ enrollment.

The average charter school has 372 students, and it is estimated that the number of students on waiting lists would fill another 5,000 charter schools.

“We frequently talk about the problems plaguing America’s education system,” said Jeanne Allen, president of The Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C. “Charter schools and school choice demonstrate what’s working in American education. When provided with good choices, parents make informed decisions and select the best schools for their children.”

Propel Schools operates five schools in Allegheny County with an estimated enrollment of 1,700 and a waiting list of 1,500, according to Superintendent Carol Wooten. Another 200 students are slated to attend a sixth school scheduled to open in August.

Even charter schools in Pennsylvania that limit enrollment to students who can pass an audition, such as the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Beaver County, carry a waiting list.

“I think the success of charter schools is less about parents fleeing horrible public schools and more about them wanting a choice in the education their children receive,” said Stephen Catanzarite, managing director of performing arts at Lincoln Park, which has an enrollment of about 500 and a waiting list of 100 to 200 children.

Richard Wertheimer, chief executive officer of the City Charter High School, Downtown, where 570 students are enrolled, said the school keeps its waiting list to fewer than 100.

“Families know we offer things such as rigorous academic requirements, a very strict dress code and a longer school day,” he said. “So there are few kids leaving once they start. Our waiting list would be much larger, but we are upfront with parents and tell them that once we are full, there likely won’t be many openings.”

Nikol Jackson of New Kensington said she transferred her daughter Alexandra, 8, into an online charter school this year because the work was too easy in public school.

“It was a struggle for us to even get her to sit down and do homework because she was so bored. We felt we needed to do something before she started hating school all together,” she said.

At the Northside Urban Pathways Charter School, where about 80 percent of the 350 students come from the Pittsburgh Public Schools system, the waiting list typically hovers at around 250. Linda Clautti, chief executive officer, said small classes with an emphasis on individual instruction and a strict code of discipline resulted in 98 percent of the school’s graduates being accepted into college last year.

“We are a public school that offers the experience of a private school,” Clautti said. “Parents know that what we’re doing leads to success, and they want that for their children.”

Charter schools in Pennsylvania are limited to 5 year terms.

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