Chester's last hope hangs in the balance

Posted: February 22, 2012

In the coming weeks, Gov. Corbett and State Education Secretary Ronald J. Tomalis will make decisions that will determine the future of Chester. Following the secretary's court-ordered meetings with representatives of Chester Community Charter School, the Chester Upland School District, and others, the city's schools may get the funding they need to provide a constitutionally mandated education to more than 7,000 young people. Or commonwealth officials may deprive the schools of adequate resources or, worse still, close them down.

Their continued ambivalence suggests that state officials are seriously underestimating the determination of Chester's parents. If Chester's schools close, those parents will likely send their children to nearby school districts such as Penn-Delco, Chichester, Wallingford-Swarthmore, and Ridley, potentially destabilizing those communities.

The city of Chester is 74.7 percent African American and 9 percent Hispanic, compared with 10.8 percent and 5.7 percent statewide. The departure of large employers such as Sun Shipbuilding and Scott Paper left the formerly vibrant and solidly middle-class community with a median household income of $26,787, about half the state median. An astounding 35.1 percent of Chester's residents are poor, while about 25 percent of its adults haven't graduated from high school. With such challenges, there is growing despair about educational and economic opportunities in Chester.

That's where schools come in. Since Chester Community Charter opened 13 years ago with 97 students, the city's parents have brought nearly 3,100 of their children to the school, or 60 percent of the city's K-8 students. The school gives parents their own report cards grading their support for their children's education. Its students learn in nine modern buildings and have achieved Adequate Yearly Progress on state tests for three consecutive years.

The school's program for gifted students teaches them to become self-directed learners. Its high school search and selection program has helped many eighth graders get into the region's most prestigious high schools. Frequently, graduates who require tuition assistance receive scholarships from Danielle Gureghian and her husband, Vahan, who leads the school's management company. In a city where only 8.75 percent of adults hold a bachelor's degree, 40 percent of the school's first eighth-grade class is now in college.

When given a competitive education, Chester's children can improve their families' circumstances and the city's quality of life. Chester Community Charter accomplishes this with just 75 to 80 percent of the district's per-student funding.

I am no less anxious for the state to provide funds for the 3,600 students who attend district schools. After all, 40 percent of the charter school's parents have at least one child at a district school. Chester's children deserve a high-quality education regardless of the district's fiscal management. And Chester Community Charter, which has always operated within its budget, certainly deserves to continue to produce results. We hope Secretary Tomalis and Gov. Corbett will act accordingly and urgently.


David Clark is CEO of Chester Community Charter School.

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