Plan raises residents' concerns
National Heritage Academies plans to open a charter school in September 2006.
By AMBER HYLAND
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- A small crowd gathers in the parking lot of St. Dominic's school, showing one another the letter they received from National Heritage Academies, a company founded in 1995 that manages charter schools, about a "neighborhood meeting."
The company plans to build a school on McCartney Road, a residential area on the East Side near routes 422 and 616.
Inside the school, representatives from National Heritage Academies pass out information packets.
Helen Walker, who lives on Route 616 on Struthers-Coitsville Road, reads the cover, "'Consider the potential.' Ha, potential for what?" She sets her tape recorder on the table and pulls out a folder filled with newspaper articles and information she gathered from the Internet about charter schools.
"We don't really have a particular agenda this evening except to tell you about National Heritage Academies and to answer any questions you might have," said Sandy Eustis, a public management representative for National Heritage Academies.
But the 20 people sitting in the meeting room have an agenda. They want to drive out a charter school that they think will corrupt their neighborhood.
About a month before the neighborhood meeting on July 14, Walker and her neighbor, Renee Hagerty, noticed surveyors in their yards.
Walker noticed that trees were marked with Xs and tied with ribbon.
"We parked our lawn chairs by their tripod and asked them who they were and what they were doing here," Walker recalled.
After Walker found out that a charter school might be built in her back yard, she called everyone she could think of to get some answers, including the Ohio Department of Education, the surveying company, KS Associates, councilman Rufus Hudson and National Heritage Academies.
Walker was surprised that many people did not know that a charter school would be built in the area.
When she spoke with Eustis over the phone, she said he told her that the company "prefers to fly under the radar."
"I feel like this is an invasion of our rights. They just came in and made the decision. I'm furious about that," Walker said. "What kind of fools do they think we are? They probably think, 'Oh, what do some hillbillies from the sticks know?'"
Hagerty also expressed her concern with the building plans.
"Too many public schools are closing," she said. "We don't need another school in the area. Maybe if [charter schools'] scores were better, but they have these low scores."
Hagerty and Walker both said that the people living in their neighborhoods have lived there for many years, stressing that they think it is one of the last nice residential neighborhoods in the area.
About the schools
National Heritage Academies opened its first school in 1995 in Grand Rapids, Michigan with 174 pupils. The company now has 26,500 pupils in 51 schools throughout Michigan, Ohio, New York, Indiana and North Carolina.
The school the company plans to open in the fall of 2006 in Youngstown will be located at 3449 McCartney Road.
According to Eustis, the company has looked for the right location in Youngstown for a year.
Postcards were sent out before the neighborhood meeting to 10,000 parents in the area, Eustis said.
About 100 people attended this meeting who were interested in the school, he said, adding that the majority of the pupil population comes from the three-mile radius around the school.
Pupils interested in the school do not have to come from the district where the school is built, Eustis said.
The school will begin by offering kindergarten through fifth grade, adding a new grade each year until it reaches the eighth grade level.
"Our other schools get pressure from parents to do a high school. But we're like Kentucky Fried Chicken. We do elementary and middle schools right, and we intend on just doing that," Eustis said at the neighborhood meeting.
Each school stresses moral values, emphasizing the Greek Cardinal Values of justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude.
National Heritage Academies also emphasize what it calls a "common sense approach from a parent's perspective." Each school stresses parental involvement; there is a meeting room for parents at each location.
According to Eustis, the average progress of learning is 15 months for every year spent in their schools.
He added that this is an accelerated rate compared to other public schools.
In addition, Eustis said that dress codes are enforced to "give a sense of order."
"There are two things that these schools provide," Eustis said. "We provide a choice for parents, and we provide competition for local districts that are failing."
At the meeting, one neighbor commented that it's unfair that only a few people in the room received notice of the neighborhood meeting.
"Well, you didn't have to come," Jeff Van Putten, real estate specialist for the company, said.
Neighbors directed their questions to Eustis and Van Putten throughout the meeting, which lasted about 21/2 hours.
Eustis stressed that the school will make a difference in the area, adding that property values will go up because "people want to live near a good, quality school."
"We operate on 85 percent of the budget of local public schools. We make ends meet and we make a profit," he said, adding that $4.5 to $5 million is invested in starting the school.
"We operate strictly as a business. We make a profit, which we are proud of," Eustis said.
Walker later told Eustis that she is not impressed with charter schools' scores.
Neighbors also expressed concerns with transportation, security, curriculum and the demographic of the pupil population.
"We have lily white soccer moms in the suburbs to urban districts where no one is safe walking down the street alone and everything in between," Eustis said.
One resident asked if there is anything that can be done to drive the school out.
"I guess you could try to get all of your neighbors together at the zoning meeting," Eustis said. "You have that right."
If the school does not get the variance, Van Putten told neighbors that the school will find another location or decide to have fewer grades in the building.
"In five years you will all be very happy to have a quality school in your neighborhood. It's worked 51 times," Eustis said.
Neighbors filled the benches of Youngstown City Hall at the zoning meeting on Tuesday.
"First I'd like to add that we held a neighborhood meeting last Thursday ... and we had no idea how high the level of concern there would be," Van Putten said before asking if the variance can be deferred until next month's meeting so some of the neighbors' concerns can be addressed.
Walker said her impression was that the school wanted to delay the process.
In the meantime, Walker said neighbors are finding more people to sign a petition against building the school.