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Bethlehem Area School District denies STEAM charter application, too

Bethlehem Area School District rejected an application for the Bethlehem STEAM Academy Charter School during Monday's meeting, following the advice administrators offered in January 2024.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The Bethlehem Area School Board shot down an application to launch a Bethlehem STEAM Academy with little debate during its Monday meeting.

Board members moved quickly to deny the application for the charter school, which had been supported and promoted by consultant and former Easton Area School District Superintendent David Piperato in two previous meetings.

The Whitehall-Coplay School Board denied an application for the same group in Whitehall on Monday night, following a rejection last week by the Allentown School Board.

The Bethlehem Area School Board accepted a 54-page adjudication listing a litany of reasons to deny the application on a legal basis stemming from charter law in Pennsylvania.

The adjudication also enumerated various claims made by Piperato during his presentations and information discovered through fact-finding missions by administrators. Various issues, including missing or unclear information, unclear justification to create a new charter when students are provided sufficient instruction through the district, questionable education methods and more were cited in the report.

At the end of the adjudication report, administrators included a statement that, “The failure of a charter school applicant to provide a sufficient curriculum plan has been found to be a basis for the denial of an application because it is evidence that the proposed charter school could not be a model for other public schools, as required under section 1717-A(e)(2)(iv) . …” citing Spartansburg Community Charter School, supra.

“Upon examination and evaluation of the myriad of deficiencies, omissions and errors in the Application identified above including the curricular problems, the Board concludes that the proposed Charter School does not have the capacity to serve as a model for other public schools in Pennsylvania,” the adjudication report concludes.

Atiyeh connection

The applicants can appeal the decision if they choose.

The decision comes on the heels of the Allentown and Whitehall-Coplay denials.

Developer Abraham Atyieh is connected to all three projects and planned to lease properties to the charters.

During the Bethlehem meeting, resident David Dunn was the only person to speak about the Bethlehem STEAM Academy, questioning the board as to how the group had been able to publish an advertisement for the academy.

“One would assume the charter school is up and running. Obviously, it’s not, as of this moment,” Dunn said. "So, is this ethical? Is this the way the charter school works?”

A board member said, “anybody has the right to advertise anything they want.”

Dunn proceeded to question why such an ad would be placed, supposing it might be to garner support among the community which would lead to proponents speaking out at the board meeting — which, if it was the intent of the charter, did not work.

Piperato offered a presentation about the potential STEAM Academy at two meetings in December 2023 and January 2024, though administrators ultimately opted to advise against the plan.

Partnerships questioned

Focusing on an integrated learning model launched at a similar charter — the PA STEAM Academy — in Harrisburg, Piperato touted partnerships with higher education, school organizations, nonprofits, community partners, local businesses, and government agencies which would provide students “with rigorous academic content, emphasizing science technology, engineering arts and math.”

An initial kindergarten through fifth grade establishment was planned for 316 E. Market St, which the proponents of the charter said could accommodate enough space for 60 students per grade per year, and, eventually, a total of 480 students.

Another lot at 1838 Center St. was considered for the upper-level classes for the charter, provided the board accepted the application.

However, during the January session, Bethlehem schools Superintendent Jack Silva pointed out that the supposed partnerships with several organizations and businesses were questionable, indicating several of them — including Lehigh University, the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Da Vinci Science Center, Touchstone Theater, and #BASDProud Parents — had denied any such action, with Lehigh University requesting a form letter be removed.

As for community support, out of 97 letters submitted, nearly a third were found to be from businesses at the Lehigh Valley Mall, which is in Whitehall Township. Some owners also expressed they were unsure of what they were agreeing to, Silva said in January.

Literacy program

Assistant Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer Maureen Leeson challenged the STEAM Academy’s academic programming in January, stating it did not “provide a comprehensive learning experience to students” and serve as a model for other schools.

Leeson questioned the academy’s proposed use of “Balanced Literacy,” providing sources from researchers showing the process creates learning difficulties and then offers solutions.

On the other hand, Bethlehem Area School District has utilized a structured literacy program since 2016 and has also gained recognition as a leader in local and national elementary reading instruction.

Silva concluded the presentation in January stating, “To boil it all down to one administrative recommendation, we encourage the board to reject the application for specific reasons of insufficient community support and poor academic programs.”