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February 8, 2013

Public, school officials comment on charter idea

NEW CASTLE — A New Castle music teacher said he sees an arts-infused charter school in the city as “unnecessary and redundant.”

John Onufrak, New Castle school district’s music department chairman, was among those who offered comments, pro and con, about the New Castle Arts Academy Charter School proposed for the downtown.

The school board conducted the second part of a public hearing for the charter school application Wednesday, when several administrators also posed pointed questions about special education concerns and asked why paraprofessionals to aid special needs students were not detailed in the plans. They also asked about budgeting for a school nurse and a guidance counselor, and they drilled charter school representatives about assessment scoring.

Board members Barb Razzano, David DiGiammarino and Allan Joseph did not attend the session.

Onufrak pointed out the New Castle district requires arts for every student from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. At George Washington — housing grades four, five and six — every student must take general music, art and choir, he said.

And because the optimal level to begin learning a band instrument is fourth grade, he said, instrumental music can be elected, and the district has 152 participants.

District arts teachers also attend opera workshops and take students to see operas in Pittsburgh, Onufrak said.

He added the district offers 22 elective arts courses for high school students.

“We feel our curriculum provides the arts to our students in an exemplary way,” Onufrak said.

David Schuler of 1024 Williams St. said he has misgivings about a charter school, because it would pull money from the district.

He said he has heard comments from charter school proponents about “how this will be paid for or assigned later,” regarding questions from the board about what is and is not in the proposed budget in the application.

“If I was applying for a job, I wouldn’t say, ‘I’ll get a license after you hire me,’” Schuler said, emphasizing the school board has to have access to the information ahead of time.

“I don’t find the answers reassuring,” he added, regarding the hiring of a nurse or guidance counselor or about how the arts-infused curriculum would be developed after the school gets its charter.

Shelly DePaolo of Shenango Township said she believes the charter school would suit one of her children.

“I’m a big proponent of the public school, but there need to be other choices for these children who don’t fit into the public school.”

Cindy Biddle, a downtown business owner, said that after hearing the charter school’s presentation, “I was sold. I feel that charter school or public school is an option we need to make.”

Biddle is listed as a member of the proposed charter school’s advisory board.

After hearing the school’s presentation, Terence Meehan, assistant to the superintendent, commented, “I still fail to see the art infusement here. It just says ‘multiple lessons.’”

The school’s application “needs to say how this art is going to be infused,” Meehan said.

Debra Rice, a founder of the charter school, said it would contract with an organization called Art Integration Solutions to work with the teachers on professional development and “they will be the people to teach the art integration.”

“I believe they should have been part of the planning process up to this point,” Meehan countered.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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