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School's out: Whitehall-Coplay rejects STEAM charter school application

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Phil Gianficaro
The Whitehall-Coplay School Board unanimously rejected an application by the Lehigh Valley STEAM Academy Charter School.

WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. — There will not be a Lehigh Valley STEAM Academy Charter School in the Whitehall-Coplay School District.

The charter school’s application was rejected by a 9-0 vote of the school board Monday night.

No members affiliated with the STEAM charter school attended the meeting.

The school board also voted unanimously to approve the charter school adjudication to explain the details for the rejection.

The STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) charter school sought a five-year charter to debut in August and serve 300 students in kindergarten through third grade at 215 Quarry St.

Citing “serious deficiencies,” the Whitehall-Coplay School District administration repeatedly recommended the school board to deny the charter school’s application due to the applicant’s failure to present strength of local partnerships, adequate community support and financial sustainability.

The application rejection is one of three such denials in less than a week for the Lehigh Valley STEAM Academy Charter School.

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On Monday, the Bethlehem Area School District also denied the group’s application for a charter school there.

The Allentown School Board last week unanimously rejected the charter school’s application for Allentown following several hearings on the issue. The charter school is in the process of filing an appeal. It also failed last year in its bid to open in Allentown.

Charter schools do not charge students tuition. They receive the majority of funding from their students' resident school districts. The amount a charter school receives is based upon a statutory funding formula, which requires tuition rates for both non-special and special education students.

Whitehall-Coplay spends about $5 million annually in charter school tuition for district students to attend cyber charters or brick-and-mortar charter schools located in other local districts.

Among other financial concerns Whitehall-Coplay administrators had with the charter school’s application were teachers’ salaries, school furnishings and lack of adequate budgeting for tech support.

Academic concerns focused on a lack of data on classroom grading and professional development for literacy education.

Renee Sallit, director of teaching, learning and technology, has described the charter applicant’s proposal as one that “seems more like a collection of verbose statements than a thoughtfully designed educational framework.”

The school board also questioned the businesses and organizations listed as supporters in the application. Only 32 of the 106 signed business letters of support are within the district — and all are located within the Lehigh Valley Mall, officials said.

The school district was able to validate only 14 signatures.

The 32 letters account for just 1.07% of the 2,983 licensed businesses in Whitehall Township and Coplay Borough as of June 2023 — data showing a lack of overall support, Superintendent Robert Steckel said.

Steckel also said some community partners listed in the charter school application confirmed with the district that they have not lent support to the school, nor discussed partnerships with school representatives.

Those organizations are the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lehigh Valley, Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21, Da Vinci Science and Technology Center, Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, Lehigh Valley Children’s Centers and Touchtone Center.

Additionally, Steckel said, the charter school’s application does not recognize Coplay Borough, which is within the school district.

In other business, the school board approved a $12 million bond resolution for construction of a new kindergarten/first grade elementary school and the Gockley Elementary School renovation projects.