The backers of a proposed entrepreneurism-themed charter school in West Easton faced thorough questioning from the Wilson Area School Board at a lengthy public hearing Monday night.
For more than two hours, board members peppered organizers with detailed queries about how a school that organizers call “pioneering” would function in the district. A handful of concerned residents also leveled criticisms at the proposal.
By state law, the backers of the Academy of Business and Enterprise Charter School need the board’s approval to go forward.
Everything from curricular to personal safety issues to a perceived lack of involvement by Wilson ASD’s residents – and much more – fell under scrutiny in the nearly three-hour, standing-room-only hearing.
For both residents and school officials, one focus of unease was the proximity of the proposed school to a controversial DUI-treatment and work release center at East and Main streets in West Easton.
“The DUI inmates are roaming around [outside the proposed school],” said West Easton resident Tricia Mezzacappa, who had come to protest the proposal. “I’m not saying they’re doing anything, but they’re roaming around."
She added, “I think this charter school application needs to go in the garbage.”
Her neighbor, Laurie Denegar, echoed her concerns: “I wouldn’t feel comfortable about sending my kids to a school [beside] people in a prison.”
Superintendent Doug Wagner asked attorney Mickey Thompson, who is representing the building owner, developer Abe Atiyeh, if there were any other examples of entrepreneurialism-themed charter schools located right beside work release facilities in the commonwealth.
Thompson said that since the school idea was so unique, there is no way to make such a comparison.
Led by former Bethlehem Area Superintendent Joseph Lewis, Greater Shiloh Church’s pastor Phillip Davis, and Howard Kurtz of Synergy Educational Consultants, the backers came prepared with oversized sketches and praises for what one organizer called “the entrepreneurial spirit.”
Davis, who is chair of the charter organizing board, said the charter school would offer the region “education in a way that is innovative and creative,” and said his congregation and community are “100 percent behind” the charter plans.
One woman associated with the charter backers was moved to tears in describing the power of such project-based education for disenfranchised students.
Yet if the meeting chambers were packed with application supporters, most -- including the woman who wept -- seemed to come from outside Wilson’s school district, with many mentioning direct ties to the charter backers.
One of the key questions the public hearing was meant to address is whether there exists community support for the charter. While support from Easton residents seemed evident (with charter school backers reporting that promotional open house events in Easton attracted 25 and seven attendees, respectively), there seemed to be no support on hand from Wilson ASD.
Board member Linda Baskwell, who led the board’s questioning after a brief presentation by the charter backers, said she was especially perturbed by the way Wilson school district was mistakenly associated in the application with less successful school districts or portrayed as somehow lacking in the application, a gaffe that charter organizers repeatedly apologized for and promised to purge from the application.
But the damage seemed to have been done.
“In the application, I do feel like several times we’ve been targeted,” Baskwell told organizers. “The community [portrayed in the application] does not sound at all like our community. It does not reflect our community or our district.”
Even the grammar and typography of the application itself drew withering commentary.
“With the multitude of mistakes in the application, we are just wondering how the charter school can educate children,” said board member Janis Krieger.
The organizers offered passionate responses to the board’s line of questioning and comments.
“In today’s world, everyone needs to be entrepreneurial in their thinking,” said Mark Lang of the Charter Partners Institute, a non-profit organization linked with the organizers, adding that the new charter school will deliver students who can “solve problems and think intuitively.”
“Liberal arts are great when the economy is great,” quipped attorney Thompson toward the end of the hearing. “But having a bachelors of arts degree isn’t going to get you job.”
For board member William Wallace, who teaches art, such arguments seemed unpersuasive.
“One thing I’m proud about is that in Wilson we are doing a good job,” he said after the hearing. “And we do have a liberal arts curriculum, where you have art, music and theater as part of our curriculum, and you’re taking math and science and social studies all together, and then making a life decision after that.”
The board must vote on the charter application in the next 45 to 75 days, according to state law.
The school district asks members of the public who want to express an opinion about the charter school to write Superintendent Doug Wagner on or before Jan. 16 at 2040 Washington Boulevard, Easton, Pa. 18042.