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In hearing, Harrisburg school district lays out concerns with charter school application

PA STEAM Academy charter school hopes to open in this building in Midtown Harrisburg.

Harrisburg school district administrators tonight presented their assessments of an application for a proposed charter school, asking the school’s founders about everything from financing to curriculum.

The Pennsylvania STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Academy submitted the application in November and presented it to the Harrisburg school board at a public hearing in January.

The school hopes to open later this year in the historic Midtown 2 (Evangelical Press) building at N. 3rd and Reily streets, which is currently occupied by HACC.

Tonight, district administrators questioned various aspects of the charter school’s application.

The first presenter, Chief Academic Officer Jaimie Foster, focused her report on curriculum, assessment and school design. She highlighted what she perceived to be the school’s lack of a professional development calendar and written curriculum for science, social studies and Spanish.

Other presenters included Director of Special Education Yolanda Goodwin-Humphrey, Coordinator of Assessment, Data and Child Accounting Mary Lou Sypolt, Federal Programs Administrator Damali Brunson-Murray, Interim Director of Human Resources Barbara Richards and Acting Business Manager Bilal Hasan.

Examining the finances of the charter school, Hasan said that he found that expenses exceeded revenue for multiple school years. For the 2022-23 school year, for example, Hasan said that expenses would exceed revenue by more than $31,000.

At first, charter school representatives refuted Hasan’s findings, but later conceded that there were some miscalculations in their data.

Financing, the most significant issue of the night, also carried into the question-and-answer period. Allison Peterson of the Levin Legal Group, representing the school district, asked about such expenses as $50 laptops, $117,000 budgeted for full-time special education and ESL staff and why there was a promissory note, an issue that was left unclear.

At the end of the two-hour-plus-long hearing, Carolyn Dumaresq, a former Pennsylvania secretary of education who is a founding board member of the PA STEAM Academy, thanked administrators for their review and for pointing out “what they believe were some inconsistencies.”

Later, she said that she understood that some areas needed to be clarified. She added that some of the missing information is in the appendices of the application.

She also said that she believed that some questions were “a little unfair,” such as one about the “Future Ready PA Index,” a newly launched state Department of Education measure of school performance. The index wasn’t included in the application because it didn’t come out until after the application was submitted, she said.

“I think that some of the concerns are all answerable,” Dumaresq said. “So, I’m kind of glad that we have the document now, and we can see that.”

The charter school has seven calendar days to submit a concluding document. The document doesn’t need to follow a set form and can include anything the school wants to say about why they believe they meet the requirements of the charter school law. It can’t include any revised documents or supplemental information, but must be based on what the charter school has already submitted.

Dumaresq said the charter school is planning on addressing some of the concerns brought up tonight so the Harrisburg school board can “feel comfortable” that their concerns were satisfied.

There was only one board member present at tonight’s meeting, President Danielle Robinson. The rest were sick or out-of-town. Robinson said she she’d like to see the concluding document and understand the information from both sides before making a decision.

If the school board grants the five-year charter application, the PA 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.

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