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Accountability Is Good For Charters, Propel CEO Says

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Students are pictured with their teacher at Propel Hazelwood, a K-6 school in Pittsburgh.

On today's program: Propel charter schools are prioritizing early learning benchmarks; fires in the Amazon rainforest are diminishing migratory bird habitats; a lot of Pittsburghers think they live in the Midwest; and local universities want to register more student voters ahead of the 2020 elections. 

Propel Schools focus on preparing its youngest students to succeed  
(00:00 — 12:20) 

Schools across the country are taking a bottom-up approach to increase test scores and student achievement, including Pittsburgh-based charter system Propel Schools.

CEO Tina Chekan, who started at Propel as a Kindergarten teacher in 2003, says the system recently added a literacy specialist to every kindergarten and first grade class, with shared specialists in all its second grade rooms. Chekan says more specialists mean more individualized time for students to learn to read.

Research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that students that aren't reading by third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school. Chekan says it's a statistic she's working against, while also meeting accountability requirements set by the state. 

A recent executive order from Gov. Tom Wolf seeks to overhaul regulations by standardizing the quality of education, committing to more transparency for the taxpayer and leveling the playing field between public and private schools—but information has been sparse about what exactly that means. Wolf cited recent investigations into allegedly unapproved travel by Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet as an example of the importance of keeping all schools transparent.

Chekan says she agrees transparency is good for all schools. She notes the school's willingness to comply with federal monitoring and U.S. Department of Education regulations, and argues charter schools often operate with less funding than traditional public schools. 

Will fires in the Amazon hurt migratory birds?
(13:51 — 17:51) 

More than four million acres of rainforest in Brazil have burned as a result of recent fires from deforestation. What does this mean for the animals that lived there?

The Allegheny Front's Kara Holsopple spoke with Luke DeGroote, avian research coordinator at Powdermill Nature Reserve, part of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in the Laurel Highlands. DeGroote says species familiar to Pennsylvania like the gray-cheeked thrush could have more trouble making it through the winter and returning to this region as a result of the fires. 

DeGroote says the Amazon is not built to recover from fires of this magnitude.

"There are trees that fall, and there are changes that happen on small scales," he says, "but if that habitat is removed, those bird species simply don’t have a place that they can go, because they won’t have the same food that they’re looking for."

Is Pittsburgh in the Midwest?
(17:52 — 27:00) 

An ongoing CityLab survey found 35% of Pittsburghers believe the city belongs in America's "Midwest." Minneapolis-based data journalist David Montgomery says 12,o00 people have responded nationwide so far, further fueling debate and prompting head-scratching inclusions from parts of  Montana, Colorado, Texas, Tennessee and Rhode Island.

What will it take to get more college students to the polls? 
(27:20 — 38:41) 

Just under half the nation's college-aged students voted in 2016, compared to about 45% in 2012.

It's great progress, says Melanie Blumberg, director of California University of Pennsylvania's branch of the American Democracy Project, but there will be a whole new crop of potential voters by 2020.

"We do have to really work," she says, "to constantly register students to vote and educate them throughout the entire academic year."

Some of that work falls on the shoulders of students themselves. Junior political science major Adriana Jurado works with the Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University to encourage fellow students to register and learn more about the candidates.

Jurado says access to the polls is often the biggest hurdle. Whether it's a ride to the voting booth or ignorance about absentee ballots, Jurado says she's working to help educate her fellow students to get enthusiastic about local, state and federal elections.

Blumberg says Cal-U distributes non-partisan voting guides on campus, and the American Democracy Projec holds watch parties and forums throughout each election cycle. Cal-U was recently named among the best colleges for student voting by "The Washington Monthly" magazine.

90.5 WESA's Julia Maruca contributed to this program.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
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