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Another charter school, this one for the arts, aiming for Upper Darby

A charter-school operator wants to open a school in the Upper Darby School District, but it is encountering opposition.

Parents and others protest proposed cuts to arts and music programs outside Upper Darby High School before a  school board meeting. SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer
Parents and others protest proposed cuts to arts and music programs outside Upper Darby High School before a school board meeting. SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff PhotographerRead moreSHARON GEGOSKI-KIMMEL

A group seeking to open a new charter school in Clifton Heights in the Upper Darby School District believes it can succeed where several past applicants at the same location have failed by targeting the Delaware County district’s fondness for the performing arts.

“This group thinks they can provide a program that concentrates on the arts, a win for the kids,” said Harold Kurtz, the educational consultant for the proposed Upper Darby Charter School for the Arts, whose plan for a grade K-8 charter school is slated for a hearing before the Upper Darby school board on Dec. 18.

But Kurtz and others have tried repeatedly in recent years to open various charter schools at the 40,000-square-foot building on Rockbourne Road – only to see each one rejected by officials in the roughly 12,000-student district, the largest in Delaware County, and one of the largest in the state. A plan that would have placed two separate charters there was nixed just two years ago.

And the new pitch for an arts-oriented school aiming to open next September with 360 students is already meeting with skepticism from district officials and outright opposition from some community leaders who say a charter school not only isn’t needed in Upper Darby but also would take much-needed dollars away from its traditional public schools.

“My chief concern is this is going to be a drain on a financially strapped school district,” said state Rep.-elect Mike Zabel, a Democrat who will represent Upper Darby in Harrisburg in January and has already written a letter strongly opposing the charter school application.

Although there are no brick-and-mortar charter schools currently operating within the district, Upper Darby already pays about $6 million to send students to nearby facilities in Chester or Philadelphia or for kids’ online education from so-called cyber-charters. The Upper Darby Charter School for the Arts would cost the district millions of additional dollars.

In proposing a school for the arts, the charter applicants – led by Carolyn Collins, a church leader in Trainer – say their facility would include six studios with a focus on dance, choral music, and visual and digital arts and thus address parent concerns that arts education has failed to fully recover from Upper Darby’s budget problems.

In 2012, at the peak of the funding crisis, the district proposed consolidating or eliminating some arts classes and programs in cost-saving moves that drew national attention after its opponents were joined by actress Tina Fey, a 1988 alumna of Upper Darby High School. But current officials say the arts programs are largely intact and doing well.

Daniel P. McGarry, the acting Upper Darby superintendent, said arts education is still “a source of pride in the community and school district. I think some of the reason [the charter applicants] are using it is they believe it’s an area they can capitalize on.” He also speculated the proposed charter would try to appeal to families unhappy that some Upper Darby students are currently bused to a Catholic school facility outside the district because of crowding at district schools. Plans for a new middle and elementary school are in the works.

District officials are slated to make a recommendation on the charter application after this month’s hearing. Two years ago, a plan from building owner Jim Duffy for two separate charter schools at the Clifton Heights location – a middle school and a high school focused on health careers – failed to pass muster.

Kurtz, the education consultant, said the charter’s proponents believe the public schools in Upper Darby are “not providing a lot of the things the [proposed] school wants to do” such as offering smaller class sizes, with fewer than 20 kids in a classroom.

He said the lead applicant Collins knows many of the proposed charter’s board members and other backers from the Church of the Overcomer in Trainer, where her husband, Keith, is the pastor. The church itself would play no role in the school’s operation.

Kurtz, a former school superintendent in two New Jersey districts, has been a consultant to charter schools around Pennsylvania – including the Chester Charter School for the Arts – since 2000. He was also the acting CEO of North Philadelphia’s Delaware Valley Charter School when it abruptly closed in 2017 – the result, Kurtz maintained, of money problems that preceded his arrival there.

In addition to the financial hit on the district, incoming lawmaker Zabel argued that "the application itself is terrible.” His opposition letter accuses the applicants of cutting and pasting language from other applications and says the proposal is full of embarrassing spelling and grammatical errors.

One passage in the application – which has been posted on the Upper Darby School District website – references Bensalem instead of Upper Darby.