Plans in works for Philipsburg charter school

For the CDTNovember 1, 2012 

— Parents looking for options in high school education are about to have a very different choice on the table.

On Nov. 13, Stephen Switala will submit an application to the Philipsburg-Osceola Area school board for approval of a new charter school, the Central Pennsylvania Charter Academy, to start accepting students for the 2013-14 school year.

Switala, the former P-O board president who resigned in September after a contentious vote that ended the contract of Superintendent Stephen Benson, is the face of a coalition of local parents who want something different for their children from what is being offered at P-O and other institutions. About 15 parents have been working on the plan since Oct. 9, the day of the meeting where Switala’s resignation, and that of fellow board member Robert Selfridge, was accepted.

“We have some really dedicated people,” said Switala, sitting down with members of the press Thursday. “Some who really believe, in all honesty, in the vision Dr. Benson had. We’ve come so far in the five years he has been here. It’s not about a person, but there is a level, an atmosphere of success in what he started here.”

Benson’s ideas at P-O were focused on high ideals and advanced placement testing, and some saw that as teaching to the few while leaving average and below average students floundering. Switala, however, a father of three and a music teacher at Clearfield Area Middle School, was among those who believed in Benson’s vision of a high bar challenging all students.

The charter school would reflect that same vision. “The mission of the Central Pennsylvania Charter Academy is to provide a strong liberal arts education that empowers students to be critical and creative thinkers through engagement with authentic content, knowledgeable faculty and inquisitive students,” reads the opening statement at its website, www.cpacacademy.org, where interested parents can request additional information.

Switala originally envisioned a performing arts charter, but realized that would limit the number of interested students. While researching, his group noticed that there are several charter options in the area, like Wonderland for kindergarten to third grade and Young Scholars for kindergarten to eighth grade. However no non-cyber charter high schools existed locally.

The organizers are building their plans on one of the best models in the country. Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire has been producing some of the best and brightest in the country since the 18th century, from Daniel Webster in the early years, to Jay Rockefeller, to more recent world shakers like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. They practice Harkness education, an interactive, collaborative teaching process that has teachers acting as moderators in a student-centered learning experience. One major difference? Exeter has a $45,000 price tag. The charter school tuition is covered by the students’ home school district.

There are still plenty of aspects that are up in the air. The district can deny the application, which the group would then appeal to the state. Switala said that, to his knowledge, a completed application with no problems has never been denied by the state.

The next hurdle would be space. Ideally, the academy organizers would like to utilize the former Wallaceton-Boggs Elementary building, which P-O is currently looking to unload. Switala said they are not interested in the junior high, slated for retirement in the 2013-14 school year. Aside from being more school than they need for a projected maximum enrollment of 100 students (25 per grade), he said that he would not want to use it for the same reasons he opposed the district remodeling it, namely too much cost to upgrade it and the presence of asbestos. Should the district deny that request, too, the group will pursue other options.

The academy can then turn attention to enrollment, hoping to nail that down by April, and faculty, which can be established once they know how many students they have. With full enrollment, they project 6-10 faculty, some handling multiple roles.

One important role, however, isn’t one they can fill. Switala says parent involvement in the new school will be critically important, and that the school isn’t an option for people who are simply picking sides in a battle with their home district. He denied the project being undertaken as a dig at the district, but more of an attempt to build the best learning opportunity in a way that traditional public schools can’t.

“We don’t just want kids to be successful. We want them to be significant. We want them to change the world,” he said.

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