SWIFTWATER — Pocono Mountain School District held the second round of hearings for two different charter schools this week and deemed both applications unfit to serve as models for other public schools in their district.
On Monday evening, PMSD hosted the Pocono Charter High School and on Wednesday evening they hosted Summit Charter School. Both meetings ran late into the night, over four-and-a-half hours long.
These charter applicants submitted their applications prior to the Nov. 15, 2019, cutoff and had their first round of hearings Dec. 17 and 18.
PMSD is the chartering school district and the decision of whether to approve or deny a charter application is, by law, required to be made by the PMSD board of directors.
Both charter school applicants were met with the same format of questions and then handed a thick, individualized report that the administrators proceeded to read aloud almost word for word regarding the respective school‘s shortcomings.
It was a critique of their applications that identified all of the deficiencies or missing information. Both reports ended with a negative determination for the charters’ future.
"The board spent over an hour-and-a-half asking us questions and then handed us a 45-page report with no opportunity to respond to any of it," said Jennifer Olson, board president of Summit School of the Poconos. "A lot of what was in the report was either misrepresented or not factual as it relates to charter school law. It could have easily been clarified or rectified, but we had no opportunity to respond to it."
"The report she handed us was over 80 pages in length," said Dr. Thomas Lubben, founder of Pocono Charter High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. "Most of what the administrators stated was either re-statements of what is in charter law or areas that are not even required to be in the charter application.
"It is clear that Dr. Robison has already pre-judged our school since she made two public statements — one with the governor and one after I announced plans to submit my charter," said Lubben. "She made both statements before she ever read my charter."
On Aug. 13, 2019, PMSD hosted a press event with Governor Tom Wolf about charter school reform. Superintendent Elizabeth Robinson spoke out against charter and cyber schools and the financial impacts they impose on their district.
On November 3, 2019, PMSD held a media event to speak out against charter schools and the newly proposed Pocono Charter High School. Robinson defended the district's arts and music educational offerings as well as their many achievements.
"They are treating us as a school that is already in operation. We will have all of those pieces in place once we are open."
Lubben reminded everyone that he has successfully accomplished this four times previously to this submission. He has opened four different charter arts schools in the Lehigh Valley area: one high school, one middle school and two elementary schools — all of which have a 50 percent arts-focused curriculum.
Robinson and other administrators described the extensive course offerings in art and music, their student successes and accomplishments.
"The difference in our model rests with in the breadth and depth of our varied artistic programs," said Lubben.
Lubben claims that while PMSD offers approximately 35 different elective course offerings in the arts and music, his school has more than 60 "required" courses for students. He pointed out additional specific major areas of artistic training, such as dance and figure skating, that are not available through PMSD.
Katherine Hernandez, school director of the Summit School said the district’s report is typical of what other districts do to charter applicants in Pennsylvania.
"Many of the deficiencies or concerns in (PMSD‘s) report are easily explained," said Hernandez. "Many of their claims are blatant misrepresentations and much of what the district claimed was missing is not even a requirement for the charter application or charter schools are precluded from providing by the Pennsylvania School Code."
Both applicants expressed their disappointment over the district’s actions on their respective evenings. They were each handed loaded documents, last minute, without enough time to respond or refute any of the findings, they said.
At the end of the meeting, on both nights, there was a period for public comment. Around 35 teachers and administrators of PMSD stood behind their employer as they approached the podium to oppose the charter and talk about the ways in which they claim they already do provide everything the charters were offering.
"They harped on the fact that the law allows for 75 percent of charter school teachers to teach without a certification," said Hernandez. "They implied that this is what we would do or already do, which is not at all what we represent. They implied that we discriminate and cater to a select few and that we would discriminate against those with disabilities or special needs as a charter school."
Olson said she walked away from the meeting feeling that a very narrow view of the Summit School was portrayed, that it did not represent all of the facts to the general public.
"We would have liked to have been provided with a copy of the administration’s report prior to the hearing," said Olson. "Lack of transparency and dialogue creates a one-sided perspective of an issue and doesn’t leave space for critical thinking."
At Summit School, students are not only encouraged to use their voice, they are taught to explore, explain, and question all angles of an issue, hence that critical thinking, she said. Students from Summit School were denied the opportunity to speak at both hearings.
"This prevented the PMSD board and all of the adults who were allowed to speak to truly understand what our school community is and will be about," said Olson. "It seems that we have two examples right here of stark differences between Summit School and PMSD."
Both charter school applicants said they will resubmit their applications and address all the issues or concerns in their respective reports by the month’s end, at which time, PMSD will approve or deny their charters.
Charter school applicants may resubmit a revised application to the district for a final decision by May. If denied again, the next step would be to appeal the decision to the State Charter School Appeal Board.
"We will be providing a competent and proven model of excellence comparable to Charter Arts in Bethlehem, to serve the students of the Pocono Mountain School District and the rest of the Pocono region," said Lubben. "We are not going away and I am confident that eventually we will be approved by the Pennsylvania Charter School Appeal Board."
"If the PMSD board makes the right decision and approves us, we will open in the fall of 2020 as a charter school," Olson said. "And if they make the wrong decision, then we will appeal to the state and expect approval there.
"We will continue to fight for Summit and what educational opportunity it will bring to so many students." Olson said.