A new elementary charter school could open its doors in Midtown Harrisburg next year, if it gets the approval it seeks from the Harrisburg school board.
The Pennsylvania STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Academy tonight presented a charter application to the school board at a public hearing in the district’s Lincoln Administration Building.
Only three board members attended the hearing, which was recessed after 90 minutes and will reconvene in January.
The presentation was led by former Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq, a founding board member of the PA STEAM Academy. Dumaresq explained that the school would offer small classes and a rigorous curriculum in STEM fields, as well as a deep emphasis on language arts and literacy.
If Harrisburg grants the five-year charter application, the STEAM Academy would open at the HACC Midtown 2 Academic Building, 1500 N. 3rd St., in fall 2019 for grades K-2. The school would add a grade of instruction every year, allowing the incoming cohort of 2nd-graders to progress through 6th grade by the time the charter expires in 2024.
HACC currently occupies Midtown 2, but the 15-year lease on the building expires in June 2022, and HACC announced in March that it would not renew it. The college plans to start moving some programs out of the building as early as next year.
As a public charter school, enrollment at PA STEAM Academy would be free, paid for by students’ school districts. Harrisburg students would have first priority for the 120 enrollment slots. If the school received applications for more students than it could serve, it would select students through a lottery system.
Enrollment would only be open to students from other districts if the school could not fill its seats from within Harrisburg.
The school would also have a research component, Dumaresq said, serving as a testing ground for innovative curriculum programs that could raise student achievement across all of the Harrisburg school district.
“We would be able to look at our programs, look at student achievement, and say ‘this works’ and take the model [to other schools],” Dumaresq said. “A school district the size of Harrisburg can’t implement things this big all at once.”
Dumaresq said that STEAM Academy would only implement curriculum programs that have already shown promise in other schools. The academy would also leverage partnerships with colleges and universities, nonprofits and local businesses and government agencies, she said.
Students would start their school day at 8:15 a.m. and dismiss at 3:45 p.m., according to a sample daily schedule provided during the presentation. They would receive 120 minutes of language arts instruction, one hour each for math, science and engineering instruction, and 40 minutes for creative arts.
Students would also take classes in computer science and coding, social studies and Spanish language, Dumaresq said.
Eventually, the school hopes to serve grades K-8. Dumaresq said that the board does not intend to offer high school instruction, since they envision the STEAM academy as a feeder into Harrisburg’s Sci-Tech High School.
The STEAM academy submitted its charter school application to the Harrisburg school board on Nov. 13. The board had 45 days to schedule a public hearing and now has 45 more days to hold a second hearing and a vote, according to Pennsylvania’s Act 14.
School board directors will be able to ask questions of the charter school board at the next hearing in January. Tonight’s hearing allowed the STEAM Academy board to present their application and field questions.
During a public comment session before the meeting, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse spoke strongly in favor of the charter application, citing pubic demand for quality schools and the “clear strength” of the application.
Harrisburg school board President Danielle Robinson said that scheduling conflicts prevented more of her colleagues from attending tonight’s hearing. They all have printed copies and PDFs of the charter application, she said, and will also receive transcripts from tonight’s hearing.
Since the board was only receiving information tonight, and not deliberating or voting, the lack of a quorum of members did not constitute a violation of the Sunshine Act, according to the hearing’s presiding officer Allison Peterson of the Levin Law Group.
The school board will vote on the STEAM Academy charter in February, Robinson said. If the board rejects it, Dumaresq said that she would appeal their decision to the Pennsylvania Charter School Appeal Board, which she chaired as state secretary of education.
Dumaresq has behind her a star-studded board of directors, whose members include lobbyists, developers, veteran educators and executives in the finance and nonprofit sectors. The following roster of board members, founding members and charter development consultants was provided at tonight’s presentation:
• Jenny Gallagher-Blom, director of operations at the Salvation Army of Harrisburg
• Kirk Hallet, founder and director of the Joshua School and the Joshua Center
• Susan Kegerise, former superintendent of Susquehanna Township School District
• Doug Neidich, CEO of GreenWorks Development, owner of the HACC Midtown 2 building
• Tina Nixon, an executive at UPMC Pinnacle
• Rocco Pugliese, president of Pugliese Associates
• David Skerpon of the Education Policy and Leadership Center
• Ron Tomalis, a former education advisor to Gov. Tom Corbett
• Michael Wilson
• Kathleen Blouch, a curriculum consultant
• Yvonne Hollins, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Harrisburg
• Robert O’Donnell, senior fellow at the Commonwealth Foundation
• David Schmidt
The Harrisburg school district currently grants charters to three schools: Sylvan Heights Science Charter School, the Capital Area School for the Arts (CASA) and Premier Arts and Science Charter School.
The board voted in August to revoke the charter of Premier Arts and Science after lawyers found the school had inflated its enrollment and overbilled the district.
The last new charter application before the board was for an arts-focused school that would have opened in the former Bishop McDevitt campus on Market Street. It failed 6-3 in a February 2017 board vote.
Tonight, Harrisburg Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney said she had not yet done an intensive reading of the STEAM Academy application, but said it looked “very promising.”