News Column

District wanted arts school downtown

July 6, 2014

By Adam Clark, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

July 06--When the Three City Center office building opens next year, workers will look out the back windows at a fountain and flowers in Allentown'sArts Park.

The 7-year-old park is situated near what is planned to be an arts trail, taking people from Allentown's arts campus to the heart of the city's revitalized downtown.

From those City Center windows, workers will be able to see their colleagues eating lunch, throwing Frisbees and listening to live music.

If Allentown School District officials had their way, office workers might have seen something even more pleasant: their own children leaving music class at Miller Symphony Hall, skipping across the park's green and ducking into the Allentown Art Museum for their next class.

Near the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, Allentown school officials hatched a plan to someday open an arts "theme school," or even a district-sanctioned charter school, in the city's downtown. Potentially housed in Symphony Hall, the Baum School of Art and the Allentown Art Museum, it would have used the arts district as its campus and emphasized arts education for elementary-age students.

The goal was for the school district to play a role in shaping the future of Allentown by providing a school unlike any other in the region, one that would lure white-collar workers with children downtown, Superintendent Russ Mayo said.

"Wouldn't it be nice if you lived downtown and you worked downtown and your kids could go to school downtown?" Mayo said.

Instead of developing such a school, the district may be forced to spend millions on one that's not under its control and well outside the arts district. The Arts Academy Elementary Charter School, which has twice been rejected by the Allentown School Board, would set up at Sixth and Union streets in a building owned by developer Abe Atiyeh in the shadow of center city. The academy was founded by charter school veteran Tom Lubben, whose help Mayo sought in developing the district's plan.

"The idea never got out of its infancy," Mayo said of his own plan.

Lubben was one of the few people who knew about it. Seeing potential in the idea, he scouted a location for a new school, but not one associated with the district. His proposal is now before the state Charter School Appeal Board as Lubben hopes to open the school next year.

"The only reason I went to the Allentown School District," Lubben said, "is because they invited me there."

In interviews with The Morning Call, Mayo, Lubben and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski revealed little-known details about the origin of an arts school in Allentown and the district's complicated relationship with Lubben's charter school.

Perfect setup

The concept of an arts school downtown originated from meetings Mayo had with Pawlowski and downtown developers, though Mayo won't identify which ones.

It made sense since Allentown is in the midst of a monumental revitalization effort, propelled by the new PPL Center, where the minor league Lehigh Valley Phantoms will play hockey and major acts like the Eagles and Tom Petty will perform.

The development is spurred by a special taxing district that funnels all state and local taxes except real estate taxes into construction. New offices and apartments, shops and restaurants are expected to lure more people downtown.

Residents in those pricey new apartments, though, may have reservations about sending their children to Allentown public schools.

Despite high levels of academic growth in certain schools, 19 of Allentown School District's 20 buildings missed the state's benchmark for success, a 70 out of 100, on last year's School Performance Profile.

Reductions in state funding combined with rising pensions costs and more subsidies to charter schools have ushered in five straight years of job cuts that mostly have affected teachers. The cuts have led to a shortened school day for high school students and reduced course offerings across the district outside of core classes.

Pawlowski, whose children attend district schools, believes the district is providing a good education. But the public perception of Allentown schools is jeopardizing the city's revitalization, he said.

"We can't have all this development and have a school system that constantly seems to be in crisis mode," Pawlowski said. "Quite honestly, unless we address the problems that are happening in the schools and figure out a way that is on the cutting edge again, we are not going to be able to attract middle-class families."

Mayo and Pawlowski believe an arts school in the arts district would have been innovative enough to do that.

Allentown's arts district has a seemingly perfect setup. Symphony Hall, the Baum School of Art and the Allentown Art Museum are situated within a one-block radius, connected in the center by the Arts Park.

"I had talked with the mayor and I had talked with developers, and we were talking about ways that could make the downtown appealing," Mayo said. "We, as educators, were trying to think what would also be appealing. We thought a theme school for elementary kids actually located in the arts complex."

Mayo described the arts school as a "hybrid," saying it could have been fairly independent from the district, yet governed by him and the school board.

Pawlowski called it a "public charter school," with district teachers in a charter school setting overseen by the district.

Regardless of the format, Mayo believed the task of launching such a school was too much for his administrative team to handle on its own. So he turned to an outsider for help.

No room at the inn

In December 2012, Lubben received a phone call from Mayo's secretary asking him to schedule an appointment with the superintendent.

"I had no idea what it was about," Lubben said.

A retired New Jersey public school superintendent, Lubben helped found the Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Performing Arts, which opened for high school students in 2003 in Bethlehem.

Nine years later, his proposed Arts Academy Charter School for middle-school students was approved by the Salisbury Township School Board and opened in fall 2012.

"Someone had mentioned Tom Lubben and the high school he started in Bethlehem," Mayo said. "So I contacted him and said we need some help any way he can help us."

Mayo hoped Lubben would serve as a consultant and meet with the leaders of the arts community to help set up the school.

Lubben believed a school district opening its own charter school, which is what he understood Mayo wanted to do, would be too complicated and time consuming to establish. So after a couple of meetings, he informed Mayo he planned to open an independent charter school and would pay the district to handle payroll, food services and other needs.

Mayo was having second thoughts, too. Among other things, the arts district couldn't accommodate the school without walls that he had envisioned. The existing buildings didn't have enough space for 300-500 students.

Sheila Evans, executive director at Allentown Symphony Association and Miller Symphony Hall, agreed.

"There's no room in the inn," Evans said. "That's the fundamental issue."

Mayo abandoned the idea. But Lubben didn't, and searched for a location. He considered the Crocodile Rock building on Hamilton Street and the former Agere building in east Allentown, where the Executive Education Academy Charter School will open this fall.

Eventually, he settled on the former Allentown Racquet & Fitness Club on Union Street, which had recently been purchased by Atiyeh.

Lubben announced his plan at a news conference on July 22, 2013. He highlighted the fact that the charter school would pay the Allentown School District for certain services.

"I don't know all the details yet," Mayo said in an interview with The Morning Call that day, "but I know that Tom Lubben has a wonderful reputation with charter schools and I would expect it to be stellar."

Mayo also noted in that interview that district officials had once considered an arts academy in the downtown arts district but decided to work with Lubben when they learned of his plans. Mayo even shared the district's curriculum with Lubben, the superintendent later confirmed. Lubben has said that in the end, he drafted his own curriculum

In a recent interview, Mayo said he figured at the time, "If we can't stop the process, then let's get on board with part of it and get some of the money back." Mayo has since distanced himself from Lubben's plan.

School directors haven't gotten on board. They rejected the charter's application again in May -- having previously rejected it in December 2013 -- saying it lacked sustainable support from parents, teachers and community members and failed to show the school will improve student learning and increase learning opportunities. The application has sparked a feud between Atiyeh and board President Robert E. Smith, who objected to Atiyeh paying consultants to pre-enroll students, many or most of whom would come from the Allentown School District and take their per-pupil state aid with them.

If Lubben wins his appeal, he hopes to open in January to about 500 students. The school would receive about $8,300 per year from the district for every regular education student and about $18,100 per year for every special education student enrolled.

Union bothered

Allentown teachers union President Debbie Tretter finds it odd that Mayo would pursue an arts school without telling the union. "I feel like I have been punched in the stomach to hear this," she said after being informed of the plan by The Morning Call.

She also questioned Mayo's comments about using district teachers for the school, had it progressed. She noted that in early 2013, Mayo had recommended eliminating elementary arts and music teachers to make up for a budget deficit -- a proposal that wasn't approved.

Evans and Lubben both said they figured district teachers wouldn't have been involved because the new school would have been a charter.

But Mayo insists his idea wasn't for a charter school. He said he had considered a charter until attorneys told him a public school district couldn't launch one. Had the arts school proceeded, he said, it would have been staffed by district teachers.

Mayo said his reaching out to Lubben and meeting with Pawlowski and developers was a way to meet budgetary and educational challenges.

"These are times that push superintendents in urban districts to reach for any innovation that would benefit not only our kids but our total community," he said.

Pawlowski finds Mayo's thinking encouraging. The mayor's focus has since moved to supporting the district's latest proposal, a downtown high school offering students specific tracks in business/finance, technology/engineering, government/education and science to prepare them for careers.

"We need to have the district actually move forward on these potentially innovative schools within the system," Pawlowski said. "And actually bring them from conception stage to reality."

adam.clark@mcall.com

610-820-6168

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