York City board approves Thackston Charter Middle School

Andrew Shaw
The York Dispatch

(Editor's note: This story was originally published Feb. 25, 2009)

Over and over, supporters of the proposed Helen Thackston Charter Middle School told the York City School Board on Wednesday the charter school needed to be approved "for the children."

After a board vote in favor of the charter, the children now have a new educational option.

Helen Thackston Charter Middle School is the latest addition to the York City School District, functioning as the sister school to Lincoln Edison Charter Elementary School. A charter school operates independently but is funded by the home school district.

The charter application was approved, 6-3, in what several people viewed as a surprise vote, including some on the board.

In addition to longtime supporters Hiawatha Powell, Sam Beard, James H. Morgan and Beverly Atwater, the school got votes of support from a visibly emotional Renee Nelson and board President Jeanette Torres.

Nelson voted against Thackston when it first came up for a board vote last year, as did a majority of board members, causing officials from Lincoln Edison to go through an appeal process with the state, which they lost.Lincoln Edison revamped its application and submitted it to York City again.

This time around, Nelson said, she believed it addressed problems with location as well as curriculum uniqueness. Under state law, she felt obligated to approve it, even if she didn't personally agree with everything about the school.

Her "yes" vote got a look of surprise from Powell, who said afterward he wasn't expecting Nelson to support the school. Powell said he's glad York City students have another choice.

"I believe the law was upheld today," Powell said.

Torres was not available after the meeting to discuss her vote, but did discuss her opinion before the board vote.

"Yes, my son does go to a charter school. ... I'm a supporter of both," public and charter schools, Torres said.


In dissent, board Vice President Tom Foust said he did not believe Lincoln Edison officials proved their curriculum was unique. Thackston has a Homeland Security theme, with training for students on things like emergency preparedness and security.

"These are not new, innovative ... teaching methods," Foust said.

Public commenters against the school said York City already offers what Thackston proposes to offer. The school board's student representative, Christopher Keys, got a loud ovation after he questioned the need for another school option.

"Why, when there's a problem with our district, do they run to charter schools?" Keys said.

After the vote: Oscar Rossum Sr., Lincoln Edison board president, said the vote in favor of Thackston was a momentous one for Lincoln Edison officials.

It marked the first time, dating back nearly a decade, that a York City school board has voted in favor of a LincolnEdison charter school, he said. "We've never, ever gotten the board to give us a majority vote," Rossum said.

It was a jubilant moment for the dozens of Thackston supporters in attendance as well.

They had lined up during the public comment portion of the meeting, which was held in the cafeteria of William Penn Senior High School, to plead with the board before the vote. Lincoln Edison board member Gary Calhoun said parents are tired of York City's methods.

"They want to see test scores improve. They want to see fewer drop out," Calhoun said. He added he plans on resigning his position so he can run for York City school board. "I intend to take one of your seats."

The public comments included a surprise visit by Newton Miller, who resigned last Friday as principal of York City's Edgar Fahs Smith Middle School. Miller supported Thackston and said York City could learn from Lincoln Edison's programs. In the end, it was a night to celebrate students' having options, supporters said.

"Parents deserve a choice," Morgan said before he voted in favor of the charter. "It's not about anyone else but the kids."

The new Helen Thackston Charter Middle School is expected to open this fall in a temporary location, at Manito Day Treatment on the 600 block of East Philadelphia Street.

A permanent site at the old police barracks on Roosevelt Avenue will open after a $10 million school is constructed. It joins Lincoln Edison Elementary, New Hope Academy and Crispus Attucks Youthbuild as charter schools in York City School District.