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Community learns about proposed Millvale charter school

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Community members met Jan. 17 at the Millvale Community Library to learn about the R.E.A.A.D.Y. (Redefining Education Achieving Associate Degrees for Youths) STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) & Performing Arts Charter School, which has an anticipated 2020 opening in the borough’s former Holy Spirit School.

High schoolers could major in the following: dance, music, musical theater, theater, culinary arts, media arts and STEM. Eligible students could earn associate degrees from the Community College of Allegheny County at their high school graduations.

“We also have partnerships with other universities — Mercyhurst, Seton Hill, Point Park, Florida State. So all these transferable credits can go to a four-year program, which means you can do two years, two-and-a-half years to get your BA (bachelor of arts) degree,” said Kenneth Nickel, school founder and CEO.

Parent Sara McCown asked what associate degree programs exist for students interested in science. Susan Gondringer, school operations director, said CCAC adjunct professors would teach science, math, computer information systems and multimedia concentrations.

Nickel aims for classes, some of which will occur online, to have a 14:1 ratio of students to teachers.

Resident Donna Pearson asked the officials to describe their student selection process. According to Nickel, the public charter school will accept everyone but will offer a placement class to determine appropriate class levels for students. Children might prepare auditions or presentations as part of the course.

While the charter school is tuition-free, there is a “nominal” fee for students to earn credits toward associate degrees, Gondringer said. The cost is less than if the student were to study directly at the community college, she said.

“We know that’s a hardship for some families, so the foundation was created so that all students would be able to afford their education,” she said.

Until the school is operational, the R.E.A.A.D.Y. Foundation will provide funding for educational day camps, intensives and other experiences operating outside classrooms.

Nickel, a former principal dancer and dance educator, has assembled a panel to assist with the school.

John Gall, who will serve as dean of curriculum and student development, earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in English literature from Duquesne University. He has taught in traditional classrooms, writing labs, online, in correctional facilities and on military bases.

In 2009, he and Nickel collaborated to create a program for Midland-based Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School students to receive their associate degrees in dance, theater and musical theater upon their high school graduations. Nickel contacted Gall about creating a similar program in Millvale. Until 2015, Gall was dean of liberal arts and sciences at the Community College of Beaver County.

Tina Walker, community relations director, is a longtime Millvale resident and former six-year Millvale Community Development Corp. president. She studied visual communications and biology at La Roche College and worked at an advertising agency for 15 years.

She spoke regarding the importance of the school’s community involvement, mentioning potential partnerships for culinary students with Millvale-based businesses Yetter’s Candy, Tazza D’Oro and Tupelo Honey Teas. Nickel said Ton Pottery is interested in offering classes. Officials spoke of internship opportunities at The River’s Edge internet radio station and collaborations with the forthcoming Millvale makerspace, with opportunities for students to learn costume-making, set design and woodworking.

“We want the school to be a part of the community and the community a part of the school,” Walker said.

Communications director Cheryl Aughton explained that the school is instilling hope for students by providing a “personalized, integrated” education and for faculty and staff by creating jobs and supporting them as they share their knowledge and experience with the community.

She has served as the communications director for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Millvale for 16 years.

PA Cyber School student Jacob Taylor of Millvale said the forum was eye-opening. An avid guitar player, he liked that the school could present him with the opportunity to meet other local musicians.

“It’s a lot of information to think about,” said his mother, Sharon.

Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributor.