Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Harrisburg school board rejects STEAM Academy charter school application

The Midtown 2 building at N. 3rd and Reily streets in Harrisburg

The Harrisburg school board has overwhelmingly rejected an application for a new charter school.

By a vote of 7-0, the board on Tuesday night turned down the proposed PA STEAM Academy, which hoped to open this fall in the Midtown 2 (Evangelical Press) building at the corner of N. 3rd and Reily streets.

“I think we need to make sure that people understand that it doesn’t matter who sits on the [proposed charter school] board,” said Harrisburg school board President Danielle Robinson. “It doesn’t matter who’s backing you. It doesn’t matter who’s behind you. We are not just going to hand over our children to you.”

That decision marked a sudden turn in the mood at the meeting, which was attended by dozens of teachers upset over the board’s recent rejection of a pay increase for veteran teachers. This time, they were on the board’s side.

Before the vote, numerous teachers and residents urged the board to vote “no” on the application.

“Why is this even on the agenda?” said Michele Rolko, vice president of the teacher’s union, the Harrisburg Education Association. “You should be voting this down.”

The audience cheered and chanted, “Vote it down.”

In November, a high-powered group, led by former state Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq, proposed the PA STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Academy. The charter school, with an initial enrollment of 120 students, hoped to open this fall for grades K-2, adding a grade of instruction each year and eventually becoming a K-8 school.

The school planned to take over more space at Midtown 2 as HACC left. HACC’s 15-year lease on the building expires in 2022, and the college plans to start moving programs out as early as this year.

In recent months, PA STEAM Academy board members have appeared before the school board three times to make their case. In December, they made their initial presentation and returned in January and February to answer questions.

The PA STEAM Academy now can appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Charter School Appeal Board, a body that Dumaresq once headed as former education secretary. She has said previously that the school’s board of directors indeed would appeal if denied.

After voting 7-0 against the application, the Harrisburg school board voted 7-0 to approve the adjudication in support of the denial.

Harrisburg has a long history of denying charter school applications, with some board members saying that charter schools take students and funds away from the struggling public school system. In fact, that sentiment was echoed at the meeting.

“Don’t continue to drain money out of the district. [Charter schools] are like a placebo, they’re not going to work,” said one resident. “We need to fix the schools that are already here. Another charter school is not going to fix the current graduation rate.”

Robinson asserted that the board has stood firm against a proliferation of charter schools during her tenure.

“In my time here, we’ve had roughly nine charter school applications that have come through this board, and, as far as I know, only two have gone through,” she said.

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