Dara Ware Allen said she never saw herself running a charter school, but when the team conducting a national search for a new CEO for Pittsburgh’s City Charter High School contacted her in the spring, she threw her hat in the ring.
In July, the school’s board called—the job was hers.
Now, barely two weeks into the academic year, Allen is happy that the timing, her background—as an assistant superintendent with Pittsburgh Public Schools and with several youth workforce development agencies—and the school’s focus on post-secondary education and career readiness all meshed, allowing her to take advantage of this opportunity.
“I’m always open to opportunities for professional growth. But this wasn’t even on my radar, and I wouldn’t have known about the position if someone hadn’t suggested me to the search firm,” Allen told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview.
“I maintain a great relationship with PPS—I’m a graduate, my mother taught there, my kids go there. I’m a vested stakeholder. But students need a range of options and experiences that tap into their potential. Families are looking for options, but there aren’t that many at the high school level. City Charter High fills that need.”
Allen said she had been aware of CCH back when she started as executive director at YouthWorks in 2004 and was impressed with its internship and workforce development focus.
“It has always intrigued me. It’s an innovative model,” she said.
“There are 600 (grades) 9-12 students all in one building, one grade per floor, and all the teachers loop with the students until they graduate. Elements like that contribute to better performance. The demographics mirror PPS, there is less disparity—in Keystone scores, graduation rates, and post-secondary acceptance and retention rates. There’s a lot of innovation I can learn from—and professionally, that’s exciting.”
Much of the innovation she admires was difficult to implement in her former position with Pittsburgh Public Schools, primarily because of scale.
“I didn’t get to focus on workforce development as much as I wanted at PPS and they recognized that. There are different structural barriers to making that happen,” she said. “The politics is different. This board runs more like a nonprofit or corporate board—they are on the same page. Obviously, that’s different from elected officials—and I was one at one time—so that dynamic is different.”
The City Charter High student body, Allen said, is comprised of 60 percent African American, 30 percent White, and 10 percent bi-racial and other minorities. Its Special Education population is 20 percent. Each class has two teachers and a support staff member. The school also operates on a trimester system, with month-long breaks in August, December and April.
“That minimizes ‘summer learning loss.’ There is also a dress code, business attire, and the teachers mirror that,” she said. “There’s also the internship programs and the business mentoring they get during those. There’s a definite sense of caring and of high expectations. We help students learn and achieve.”
Those expectations have yielded a 2017-2018 graduation rate of 95.5 percent, and 93 percent for African American students. Of those graduates, 78 percent enrolled in post-secondary education, and for the last five years, the retention rate for City Charter High students has been between 60 percent and 90 percent, depending on the class.
The school’s internship partners include both UPMC and Allegheny Health systems, Carnegie Museums, the Carnegie Mellon Electrical and Computer Engineering Research Lab, General Dynamics, Multiple City of Pittsburgh departments, and many others. But Allen wants to expand that list, too.
“Partner4Work and the Allegheny Conference have a lot of the data on emerging businesses and sectors, but no way to connect with students—so I’m looking at them as people we can get our students exposed to,” she said.
“I also have some legislative and advocacy goals for Harrisburg that would allow for more collaboration than contention with public schools. In Pittsburgh, there is a recognition that we want the right fit for students, and all schools should be places where students are choosing where they want to go. But a number of families are applying only to magnet schools because they don’t want their kids to attend their home school. There are no entrance criteria here, we’re an open-enrollment high school.”
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