Thackston charter has high school in mind in York City

Andrew Shaw
The York Dispatch

(Editor's note: This story was originally published Oct. 4, 2010)

Helen Thackston Charter School isn't even 2 years old yet, but it's already doubled in student population, up to about 400.

It's grown so much that its board has had to rent space from a neighboring church in York City.

And this year it also added fifth and eighth grades to its initial sixth- and seventh-grade levels.

That's all just a portent of things to come, Thackston board president Oscar Rossum Sr. said.

The board is strongly considering applying to the York City school board to add high school grades at Thackston as a followup on its recent approval of a lease for a $10 million new, prefabricated building that will expand its size.

"We are moving cautiously, but we're moving with urgency," Rossum said of the high school idea.

The building: The new building is targeted to open by next school year at 1195 Roosevelt Ave. on the former state police barracks lot. The cost of the building is paid for using taxpayer dollars and possibly sponsorships, Rossum said.

The school would include two science laboratories, a gym and a cafeteria, and room for 745 students in a much more updated, expanded space than they have in their temporary home at Manito Day Treatment, 625 E. Philadelphia St.

Rossum said expanding Thackston makes sense on several levels, in particular responding to community demand. Thackston is the sister charter school to Lincoln Elementary, and a high school would allow students to complete their entire education under the same group.

Charter schools are independently operated - Edison Learning Inc. oversees Thackston and Lincoln - but paid for with public funding.

Lincoln and Thackston, unlike most of the city schools, met state standards on the annual exams, said Samuel Beard, city school board president. That's giving the board a good reason to consider a Thackston expansion.

"It put to rest the old argument charter schools aren't educating students as well as public schools. Oh, yes, they do," he said.

Dilemma: But the school board has already had to deal with the ramifications of charter school enrollment. About 1,000 students in the past five years have left the district, mostly at the secondary level, in large part because of charter school enrollment.

York City has the third-most charter schools in the state behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Lincoln, Helen Thackston, New Hope Academy, Crispus Attucks YouthBuild and the new York Academy Regional Charter School that will open in a year.

The enrollment prompted the school board to agree with a district request to lay off about two dozen teachers.

Expanding Thackston would likely lead to an even more drastic enrollment decrease at William Penn Senior High School.

But Beard said the point of education is doing what's best for the student, not for a school.

"What do you protect? The institution or the child?" Beard asked.

Rossum said the charter school relationship with the district has improved greatly, and he believes adding more grades will increase competition, which should improve the educational quality for everyone.

"We need positive competition," he said.