Bethlehem Area SD-Board to recommend charter renewal
The school board’s curriculum committee discussed charter renewal for the Lehigh Valley Dual Language Charter School (LVDLCS), located in Bethlehem Oct. 9. Under state law, all charter schools must seek renewal of their charter every five years, and a large portion of that process is an in-depth investigation by the chartering school district, as well as a question session before the board.
LVDLCS offers a unique approach to teaching, with approximately half of all classroom instruction occurring in Spanish, and the remainder in English. They currently have 51 staff members, with 35 teachers instructing an average of 50 students per grade.
The school teaches kindergarten through eighth grade. On Sept. 22, Bethlehem SD sent five staff members, including Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jack Silva, to conduct a three-hour on site visit of the charter school. The visit included an overview from Principal Lisa Pluchinski, a review of financial documents, a review of student assessment results, classroom curriculum, and an observation of all LVDLCS classrooms.
The results of the visit were compiled into a 114- page report, available on the BASD Board website.
The report concluded ,“the evaluator found satisfactory evidence that the LVDLCS is deliberately addressing and carrying out its mission through its programs and procedures. Most importantly, the LVDLCS’s concurrent instruction of core subjects in English and Spanish in the elementary classrooms support the claim of the school’s unique mission in action.” The recommendation was that the charter should be renewed, pending completion of the process.
The second portion of the renewal process is the presentation and Q&A session in front of the curriculum board. Principal Pluchinski was present to discuss the specific concerns of the board. While the board was also in agreement that the charter be renewed, there were a few questions on how the charter school’s mission fits into BASD’s missions, as well issues the board wants answered or rectified before the next renewal.
BASD has a large push for all students to be reading by Grade 3, and the board wanted a clear comparison of how LVDLCS is addressing that important milestone.
Principal Pluchinski agreed that reading is a primary focus of both schools, and that the current programming at LVDLCS targets students who fall into the “below basic” and “basic” categories on testing. The school currently has 12 percent of its students in the below basic category, so that is the primary focus of their instructional improvements and teacher training. Typically, they are seeing the majority of students overcoming these challenges in the fifth or sixth grade, putting them a few years behind their BASD peers.
However, at LVDLCS, the goal is full reading, writing and speaking in both languages by Grade 8. After eighth grade, students are encouraged to explore numerous options for high school education. Principal Pluchinski indicated that she offers various options for matriculating students, including both public and private education. She strongly encourages students from BASD to consider Freedom and Liberty, but pushes her Allentown SD students more toward private and charter options.
Members of the board agreed they would like more opportunities throughout the year to come speak with students at the charter school and offer more support and guidance to encourage students to consider BASD as their primary choice.
The other major concerns of the Board were based on the financial report of the charter school. Board President Michael Faccinetto was concerned about the increasing costs in the charter’s lease agreement, as well as language regarding the care of HVAC units.
Principal Pluchinski assured the board that the lease costs are a current consideration and renegotiations are in the works. Faccinetto also was concerned that the charter school uses a general auditor from Philadelphia, and encouraged the school to change to a local auditor who specializes in school district auditing, as he suspects the results would be more affordable and also better informed on the intricacies of school budgeting.
The final concern was based on the school meal program. Currently, 94 percent of students at LVDLCS qualify for reduced or free lunch, and the school has made the choice to provide free lunch to all of its students.
Faccinetto and other board members were thrown off by the fact that the funding for this free lunch program comes from the general fund of the charter school. General fund money is the money the charter school receives from Bethlehem SD taxpayers. The board was firm on its direction that the budget needs to be rebalanced, and that the auditor and accountants of the charter school need to find a new way to cover lunch expenses.
The BASD does not use taxpayer money to feed students, and takes great pride and initiative to continue down that path, so they demand that the charter school follow suit.
The final report and recommendation for approval will occur at the Oct. 23 board meeting at East Hills MS. This is the first of a handful of charter renewals the district was to be reviewing this school year.