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                                                                                     Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette
Naira Burke, of Wilkinsburg, right, is assisted by her English teacher, Morgan Cashell, as she works on a grammar and short stories lesson on Nov. 4.

By Eleanor Chute / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When the Hill House Passport Academy Charter School opened this fall in the Hill District, it had about the same number of students as teachers: 10.

Since then the number of students has grown to 114 as students who had withdrawn from other schools learned that the school could help them earn a high school diploma, not just a GED.

Chartered by Pittsburgh Public Schools, Passport Academy so far has attracted students from Pittsburgh and 11 other districts: Cornell, East Allegheny, Gateway, McKeesport Area, Penn Hills, Shaler Area, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox, West Mifflin Area, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills.

Charter schools are public schools open to students from throughout the state.

Under state law, home school districts pay a fee that the state sets for each resident who attends and pay for transportation if the school is within 10 miles of the district’s border. The fee for Pittsburgh is $12,403 for regular education and $27,270 for special education.

The charter application, which projected 150 students in its first year, growing to 180 in later years, states that the school is for dropout recovery. Students must have withdrawn from a school and be between 14 and 21 to enroll. They must also be able to complete a diploma by age 21 and attend full time.

Passport Academy offers a “blended learning” program, which includes face-to-face instruction and online education. The curriculum is purchased from a private company, K12, which some other charter schools in the state use, including Agora Cyber Charter School and Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School. K12 also provides some management services.

Its nearly $2.3 million annual budget includes $858,768 in K12 charges. The budget also lists “net charges” to K12 as $595,546. The difference of $263,222 is equal to the school’s expected deficit. The budget includes a $208,663 implementation grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The reasons students attend Passport Academy are as varied as the students.

Naira Burke, 17, moved to Wilkinsburg and came to Passport after completing her junior year at at Monessen. She said she didn’t want to go to Wilkinsburg and chose Passport, where there is “less drama.”

“I’m more focused to get my work done,” she said.

Tamon Hatchin, 20, of Homewood, left his high school in Atlanta about a year ago. “I tried to finish, but I didn’t make it,” he said.

He thinks a GED would be “settling for less” and hopes to get his high school diploma and go to trade school. He finds the staff helpful. “They’re going to push you toward your success,” he said.

Tierra Crosby, 20, of East Pittsburgh, said she left Woodland Hills High School near the end of her senior year because she couldn’t finish her graduation project. She already had completed her core courses, so she is taking three elective courses online and working on a graduation project.

“I come in here every day,” she said. “I like it, the people, the teachers. It’s easy to get along with people. They help me with the work.”

Because of timing and money, the school opened on the ground floor of the Hill House’s Kaufmann Center, a space without any classroom windows, instead of in the building planned for remodeling in the application.

“We don’t see the space as long-run. The space is very adequate for starting the school,” said Phil Parr, Passport Academy board president.

Lisa Augustin, director of assessment for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said an outside contractor that the district hired inspected and approved the facility.

When students enroll, officials evaluate what credits they still need to graduate. Passport Academy requires 19 credits, two of which must be a graduation project. Students also are required to complete 40 service learning hours. Pittsburgh Public Schools requires 26.5 credits.

Students who need core academic classes take them at the school for three hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. or noon to 3 p.m. The rest of the day is composed of elective courses taken online, typically off-site. Students are expected to do this for two and a half hours a day.

Students are not provided home computers or Internet access but can stay at the school or continue their work at a library if they don’t have the technology at home. The school has a 186-day calendar.

The morning group has better attendance than the afternoon one. On Monday, 49 of 62 enrolled in the morning were present, which is 79 percent. Of the 52 enrolled in the afternoon, 21 were present, which is 40 percent. Combined, that amounts to an attendance rate of 61 percent that day.

The school schedule calls for one day to be to spent meeting with teachers in advisory groups. Social studies and math classes take place on two days, and science and English on the other two days. Head of school Dwayne Homa said an intensive reading instructional program has been added, helping some juniors who are reading at a seventh-grade level.

Each classroom has two teachers certified in the same area. Grade levels and courses within each academic discipline are mixed in the classrooms. A resource room has two special education teachers,

The school’s charter application describes it as being focused on “providing students with a variety of wrap-around services that address non-academic needs and includes a great emphasis on academic achievement.”

Mr. Homa said the school has a list of resources for students. He said the school also is offering the opportunity for outside agencies to work with its students. He said some services, such as infant care, are not available, and he hopes such a program can be developed. The charter calls for the school to begin offering internships in the second semester.

Mr. Homa said the school’s best recruitment tool is its students. “They’re going out and telling their friends, ‘I’m having success here.’”

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.

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Date Published: 
Saturday, November 29, 2014 | 412-765-1820 |

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