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Proposed military academy charter school comes under heavy fire

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Dec 10 2013 08:43:25 AM CST
Updated On: Dec 10 2013 08:44:13 AM CST
Bethlehem SD
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Organizers of a proposed military academy charter high school in Lehigh County came under fire on several fronts Monday night.

Proponents and opponents of the plan took their best shots at a three-hour hearing on the Advanced Military Aerospace Science Academy proposed in the former Holy Child School at 1301 Sioux St. in Fountain Hill.

Both sides were polite and thoughtful in making their case to the Bethlehem Area School Board, which will decide on the application at its Feb. 10 meeting.

But those trying to establish the school took most of the flak, with district administrators and members of the public criticizing the plan as educationally redundant, financially unwise and ethically questionable.

Organizers spoke first at the hearing, presenting a sometimes rambling 30-minute synopsis of the project's origins and expectations.

They said they have targeted next September as the opening for the school, which will specialize in aerospace science and astronomy courses that will prepare students for high-paying jobs and instill military discipline and leadership skills.

After the hearing, the organizers' consultant, Dr. Harold Kurtz, told WFMZ.com the high school's 2014-15 budget would be about $2 million, with the Bethlehem Area School District picking up $1.6 million of the tab if the school's entire projected enrollment of 160 comes from the district.

The school will begin with ninth and 10th grades, and eventually enroll 300 students and employ 29 teachers, when the it begins offering grades nine through 12, organizers said.

School board member Basilio Bonilla spent 35 minutes respectfully but pointedly questioning, among other things, how the proposed school's founders determined such a school was needed and how they developed their enrollment projections.

Dr. Kurtz admitted no formal needs survey had been done, and that the organizers were operating on "a 'build it and they shall come' kind of notion."

Three district administrators methodically fired broadsides at the charter school application and the condition of the former Holy Child building.

One of several points raised by Dr. Jack Silva, assistant superintendent for education, was the organizers' lack of formal support from the Air Force to use its JROTC curriculum and Project Lead the Way to use its science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum.

(The Bethlehem district is in the process of instituting Project Lead the Way.)

Kurtz said formal support from both organizations would come when the school is approved. "We are not able to go any further [until then]," he said.

"We are a concept at this point, and no one will write a letter of support for a concept," added Brian Smith of Macungie, one of the proposed charter school's founders.

Mark Stein, the district's director of facilities, said he found numerous problems when he casually inspected the former Holy Child School building last Wednesday.

The Allentown Diocese-owned four-story structure was built in 1900 and is in need of "extensive renovation," he said, listing new wiring and asbestos removal as primary concerns.

Stein concluded his remarks by stating, "99.9 percent of [the district's] existing spaces are in better shape than the best spaces in in this building."

Kurtz responded that the charter school organizers "have many of the same concerns. [Charter school organizers] always start out behind the eight ball [and] have to settle for older buildings. ... We recognize we have work to do."

Stacy Gober, the district's director finance, questioned whether the organizers had the money or the time to get the renovations done by next September, or if they had budgeted enough money to pay for heating and cooling, special education and health insurance costs.

Dr. Kurtz said the man who could provide specifics -- Tom Taylor, the organizers' business manager -- could not be at he hearing because he was "trapped" in Raleigh, N.C., by bad weather.

Still, Dr. Kurtz said, "We believe those numbers are pretty close to what they will be."
When members of the public had a chance to comment, all but five of the 21 speakers urged the board to torpedo the plan.

Many district residents objected to spending more money on another charter school. Dr. Vincent Stravino summarized their concerns, saying, "I don't want to see another drain on high quality schools that are already underfunded."

Stravino also said he was opposed to having young people molded by military values, a sentiment echoed by several other commenters.

Among them was Martha Christine, who said that as a Quaker, she believes problems need to be solved with diplomacy, not military intervention.

Kelly Denton-Burhaug, a Moravian College religion professor who said she has written extensively over the last 12 years about "the increase in war culture in the U.S.," told the bard that the charter school plan "is something to be wary of."

Only one of the people who supported the charter high school plan, Alfonso Diaz, lives in the district.

He said that as a teen-ager, he learned leadership skills and discipline at the South Side Neighborhood Center from a ROTC program sponsored by the Civil Air Patrol, and he wants his sone to have the same opportunity.

Selena Rivera of Whitehall Township, a mother of five, voiced support for the plan. After noting that one of her sons is in the Army, another is in the Marines and another is going to join the Air Force, she said a school like the Advanced Military Aerospace Science Academy "will focus on the opportunity [available] to our kids, let them know what's out there."

The hearing ended with Jolene Vitalos, president of the Bethlehem Education Association, thanking the commenters for all the kind words about the quality of the education being offered by the district.

"I am humbled by the outpouring of support for our teaching professionals," she said. "Let us continue on our path to educational excellence."