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Amid alleged violations, Pittsburgh Public takes first steps to revoke Passport Academy’s charter

A door and window of a school.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) is taking the first steps required to revoke its charter agreement with Passport Academy Charter School.

The district’s school board approved a resolution Wednesday permitting administrators to begin the state’s formal non-renewal process. The decision comes two weeks after school officials accused Passport Academy of violating the charter agreement.

Administrators also said the high school failed to meet state standards for student performance.

“I want to say, especially if there are young people that are listening, that this is not about you,” said board president Gene Walker. “It's about the rules that are set to make this system work effectively and properly.”

A public hearing will be scheduled and conducted by a third-party hearing officer. Passport Academy will remain in operation throughout the non-renewal process.

School officials allege Passport violated its charter, state standards

Since it opened in 2014, the school — previously affiliated with the Hill House Association — has served some of the city’s most vulnerable youth. To attend Passport Academy, students must have dropped out of their previous high school.

Principal and CEO Joe Oliphant told the school board at a public hearing Monday that Passport Academy is a “different kind of school, that supports those kids that ‘no one wants’ or are those ‘troublemakers.’”

The high school emphasizes an individualized curriculum model and career readiness, alongside a hybrid instruction. Students attend the school’s downtown Pittsburgh campus for three hours each day, in addition to two and a half hours of independent, online learning.

Oliphant said Passport Academy’s 140 high school students require flexibility and grace to succeed. Several school leaders testifying at the public hearing pointed to improving graduation rates, as well as alumni who have gone on to attend college and open businesses.

This year’s graduation rate is roughly 71%, according to Oliphant, up from 53% in 2017.

But earlier this month, Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators said Passport Academy’s curriculum was “gravely below” Pennsylvania course standards.

People in matching teal shirts sit in wood-paneled board room.
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Teachers and staff at Passport Academy Charter School filled the Pittsburgh Public Schools board meeting Wednesday to show their support for the school. District officials have accused Passport Academy of violating its charter agreement.

Lisa Augustin, the district’s director of charter accountability, cited the school’s low performance on state exams. Just 5.7% of Passport Academy students met state standards for English and literature during the 2022-2023 school year.

No student at the school met state standards for mathematics that year.

“Even giving some leniency for the pandemic, as we have given to schools — including ourselves — their performance has been significantly low over the course of the charter agreement,” Augustin said.

Charter schools in Pennsylvania are up for renewal every three to five years. With that, school districts can revoke a school’s charter for failing to meet student performance requirements outlined in its charter or in the Pennsylvania School Code.

Augustin also accused Passport Academy of violating its charter by failing to submit affidavits in which students under the age of 18 declare their dropout status. The school came under fire for the same reasons during its first charter-renewal cycle in 2019.

“We've accepted late affidavits, we've accepted unsigned affidavits, we've updated the affidavit,” Augustin said. “It got to a point where, as the authorizer, we can no longer allow that type of violation.”

Oliphant, however, said the school had rectified any affidavit issues “years ago,” noting that all students are required to have an affidavit when they enroll at Passport Academy.

School leaders also said they had changed Passport Academy’s curriculum this past school year. The school now uses an individualized curriculum provided by McGraw-Hill, a curriculum provider with whom Pittsburgh Public Schools also contracts.

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Alumni say Passport Academy helped them see their full potential

A large showing of Passport Academy teachers, parents and students were present at Monday’s public hearing. Alumni spoke about bouncing between multiple high schools before finding a supportive space at Passport Academy.

“If you asked me before Passport if I was going to college, I would have told you ‘no,’ because I hated school,” said JaMere Brown, a recent graduate.

Brown described how the relationships she formed with staff at Passport Academy allowed her to open up and pushed her to attend school each day.

“If it wasn't for Mr. [Oliphant] and all of my teachers, I would not be who and where I am right now, which is starting college in July for culinary,” she said.

Educators at Passport Academy assess what career paths students are interested in and connect them with partners in the community. The school connected Nathan Porter, a 2016 graduate of Passport Academy, with local opportunities in the culinary field.

Porter told board members Monday that he is now in the process of opening a restaurant. Porter said that after attending five or six high schools, teachers at Passport Academy pushed him to recognize his full potential.

“They helped me look at things a little bit differently,” Porter said. “Like I said, it's not always about test scores. It's about knowing that you can get something done and that you have the help to get something done.”

Many board members said they were touched by the community’s testimony, noting that no student should be left without supportive options.

“The mission of this school is critical, and I hope that we can find ways as PPS and Passport to work together on how PPS can better serve some of these students,” said board member Emma Yourd.

Still, she added that the board must also ensure that public funds are stewarded well and acknowledge an alleged “pattern of noncompliance.”

Before voting to not renew the school’s charter, school board director Dwayne Barker turned his attention directly to Passport Academy’s parents, students and staff.

Barker said he didn’t want them to think school board members were voting against them because of divides between traditional public and charter schools.

“We want you all to continue to stand,” Barker said. “We want you to continue to fight.”

School district administrators will schedule a public hearing to allow attorneys for each party to make their case and review additional evidence. A third-party officer will then make their recommendation to the school board.

Following the hearing, the board must also allow 30 days for the public to provide comments before it can take formal action to not renew the charter.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.