Hill House Passport Academy Charter paves way for high school dropouts


In any given school year, an upwards of close to 800 students per year drop out of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.  The reasons for these drop outs vary, it is not all about being delinquent or discipline problems, pregnancy, and or lack of intellectual ability.  The reasons are as unique and as varying as the students, but the point is that they drop out and some don’t even secure GEDs; leaving them trying to figure out how to make it in this life.
The Hill House Association, as part of an initiative to continue breathing life into the community, has started an alternative education program designed with just this dropout population in mind.  The Hill House Passport Academy Charter School is slated to begin following Labor Day 2014 and will be located on the lower level of the Hillman Auditorium in the space that previously held classrooms.
According to Hill House President and CEO Cheryl Hall-Russell, the seeds for the creation for such a school were planted during a conversation she held with Tamara Carpenter, vice president of School Development of K-12 Inc. early in 2012. “There were a couple factors that prompted what would be a year-long conversation, first being that because Tamara knew of my interest in working with troubled teens, and was familiar with my background in running a young services association in Indianapolis,”
Hall-Russell said. “She felt I might be interested in finding a way to serve this population.  Secondly, because the Hill House has a tradition of serving children who have dropped out via our work force development and GED preparation programs, we have a clear understanding that many of these young people wished they had not quit school and a GED was not serving them as well as a diploma would.  It seemed, therefore, that this would be a great next step in the continuum of our service to them—starting a school that would give them the diploma they coveted.
“The establishing of HHPACS was never simply about starting a charter school in the Hill District that would compete with Pittsburgh Public.
“The idea of opening a school for youth who were not being served held a strong appeal for me.”
However, even with the supportive conversations with Carpenter and her own Board members, Hall-Russell still wasn’t 100 percent sold on the creation of the school.  It was important to her to make sure that doing so would be appropriate for the population—both in the Hill District and surrounding areas, that statistically there was a need and that a board could be formed that was strong enough to support such an initiative.  The final decision to move forward came after seeking and gaining HHA board support and approval, along with input from other HHA staff members.
An application for a charter had to be written and submitted to the Pittsburgh Board of Education; Hall-Russell identified HHA Board Member Phil Parr who, along with Carpenter of K-12 would undertake the task of writing the charter application.  Parr’s background as the former chief of staff for Pittsburgh Public and his experience with establishing the Pittsburgh Public charter application review process were two of the reasons he seemed the right pick for working with K-12 to write the charter.
One of the requirements of a new charter school is that it be it’s own entity, thus it was important that a separate body be established to oversee the finances and governance,  according to Parr, who is also president of the newly established HHPPACS Board.
The new HHPPACS board includes six, highly experienced, passionate and committed individuals, he said. Those members: Joseph Jacobsen, vice president of Energy Innovation Center (the site of the Former Connelly Trade School at Bedford and Crawford Streets); Cheryl Hall-Russell; Olga Welch, PhD, dean of the School of Education at Duquesne University; Trish Gadson, executive director, Macedonia FACE;  Bonnie Young Laing, PhD, associate professor of Social Work, California University and co-director of the Hill District Consensus Group; and Alice Booker, vice president of Workforce Development at CCAC, have a clearly crafted operational agreement with K-12, that defines the services which K-12 will be providing to the school.
“The Hill House conceptualized the idea of the School, wrote and applied for the Charter, but the HHPPACS is solely governed by the new board who has contracted the Educational Services to be provided by K-12 Inc.,” Hall-Russell said.
The HHPPACS will be adding two parents to its Board once enrollment is complete and classes  begin.
K-12 Inc. is one of he largest education service providers in the country.  They have developed a very specific curriculum for the “drop out” population ages 16-20.  For this program a student must finish by the age of 21, after that they lose their eligibility.  In a recent Wall Street Journal article featuring a school in Chicago, for which the HHPPACS is modeled, it reported that over the past four years the Chicago school has experienced a 92 percent graduation rate.
With only a little more than 40 days left, HHA is ready for the opening of the very first blended charter school of its kind in this region.  Staffing is complete with teachers, a principal, a recruiter, an office manager, and a business manager having all been secured.  Tuition free, this school, not unlike other schools in the District is responsible to the Pittsburgh Board of Education and also the Department of Education for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
HHPPACS students will spend three hours a day on site five days a week in the blended learning structure.
“These young people will be attracted to us because they have decided to make a mid course correction; and they will therefore be coming to us with that motivation,” Parr said. “Because these students have been out of school, we know they will have additional issues other than getting a diploma; we intend to have wrap around services, including counseling, and child care, to name a couple.  Further, the Thelma Lovette YMCA is supporting the school for gym credits.”
The HHPACS will address the needs of the “whole person.” Both Parr and Hall-Russell agreed that the hope and vision for this school is that it will be a vey dynamic alternative non-traditional program for youth who may have otherwise missed the opportunity to reach their full potential; to change the landscape of their future, and provide them a spring board of hope.
(For more information on the School or for enrollment information, go to the Hill House Web site www.hillhouse.org.)
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