Fourth grade students at Propel Hazelwood gathered in a circle around another student summarizing a class text. As she spoke, each student gave her a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
“They can agree or disagree respectfully throughout the lesson,” said Tina Chekan CEO and superintendent of Propel Schools. “So it’s listen first, agree or disagree, add on. It’s accountable talk.”
The student finishes her summary and students wiggle their fingers in her direction. It’s what the teacher calls silent power – a loose acronym for positive attitude, ownership, working hard, excellence and endurance and respect for all.
Principal Lakiesha George said teachers use that guiding vision every day with students. Propel Hazelwood is a K-6 charter school that opened its doors four years ago. It’s funded with tax dollars and has open enrollment as a public school. It’s operated independently from the Pittsburgh Public School district and has an independent board.
The Pennsylvania Charter Law was approved 20 years ago with the guiding principle that schools would be centers for education innovation. The idea was that the schools would share what worked with traditional schools. They were given flexibility to do that. They don’t have to report the same data to the state that public schools do. Teachers aren’t often in a union, meaning practices can be enacted quickly.
Like many charter schools, Propel boasts that its schools set high expectations for students. Propel is the largest system of charters in the Pittsburgh area with 11 schools and two more expected to open in the fall. The system projects it will have 4,000 students enrolled next year.
Jeremy Resnick founded Propel and worked with the Duquesne Charter School Project in the late ‘90s when the law was passed in Pennsylvania, helping schools get started. Before that, he was a math teacher in the Pittsburgh Public School District. The first school opened in 2003 in the Mon Valley.
“From the point of view of a parent, you now have more choices,” he said. “You’re more in control of your destiny, your child’s destiny, your family’s destiny. That’s really important. This is about the dignity of parents and the idea that all families are equal.”
Pennsylvania’s charter law was, for the most part, a bi-partisan effort when it was created in 1997. Although, Democrats and Republicans alike said the reform movement wouldn’t save failing public school systems, but most agreed it was worth a shot. Resnick said the competition of charter schools has forced traditional public schools to improve.
“I’m sure life was a lot easier before charter schools were around and before you actually had to think about families having choices and options and as being powerful independent consumers of something that is available from more than one organization,” Resnick said.
While the law intended schools to share best practices, administrators of charter schools and Pittsburgh’s public school district said the schools are not intentionally sharing ideas.
Jessie Ramey, a professor at Chatham University who co-founded a coalition of Pittsburgh education groups called Great Public Schools, said some individual charter schools are doing well, but there are systemic inequities that raise questions.
Instead, Ramey points to national studies that suggest charters are systemically harming students and not improving education outcomes.
“Ideas coming out of individual charter schools are almost impossible to scale up,” she said. “So if charter schools have great ideas and they think that they can happen, I think the public systems are waiting to see them.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Anthony Hamlet is finishing his first school year at the helm of the district. He said he’s met with some charter leaders and he acknowledges that some schools are doing good work, but they aren’t able to mirror what Pittsburgh Public can offer students.
“I would say there isn’t something so innovative that isn’t currently in Pittsburgh Public Schools,” he said.
Hamlet pointed to the district’s effort to create a community schools model that would coordinate social services for students. He also noted the district’s move to using restorative practice as an alternative to suspensions.
He said because the teachers in charter schools often aren’t unionized they can move to some of those innovative practices quickly, but that also could be problematic in pushing practices through without proper analysis.
Vasilios Scoumis, CEO of Manchester Academic Charter School for the past 19 years, said that large-scale sharing of ideas didn’t happen because of bureaucracy.
“There’s some misinformed board members, misinformed unions, that say, ‘No, we’re not working with charters,’” he said.
Ron Sofo, CEO of City Charter High School downtown, said he hopes the two parties can come to the table.
“Because I do believe that there are things the Pittsburgh Public Schools are doing that the charter school community could benefit from and learn from and share professional development,” he said. “However, there hasn’t been the will consistently over time to do that.”
Hamlet and charter school administrators said there’s one main reason the schools aren’t intentionally working together. It’s one that most people with a stake in the game agree on.
“If you want to really stop the tension, make sure we’re on the same level playing field. They get public funds like we get public funds, so they should be bound to the same rules,” Hamlet said.