DIRT refuses to be swept away

Proposed charter school organization re-applying to NYSED, hopes to rent PIE building

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WARWICK — The proposed DIRT (Developing Innovative Rural Thinking) charter school reached out to the WVCSD board of education in hopes of leasing the former Pine Island Elementary School building.

The group is exploring location options, but the PIE location is ideal, DIRT spokesperson Christina Pahucki said, because it “has the size and space we need, as well as the proximity to farmland and natural resources, while sitting geographically in the center of our prospective students.”

Re-applying for state blessing
According to its June update to parent-supporters, the proposed DIRT Charter School will be re-applying to the New York State Department of Education (NYSED) for approval this year.

Pahucki said in the communiqué that NYSED suggested that the charter scale back its planned K-6 to a more modest, three-grade levels or fewer initially.

“Almost all of the charter schools that New York has approved in the past several years have started with 3 or less grade levels and have built up to their target enrollments by year 5 or so. Our Board is discussing how many grade levels DIRT would need to financially support the school and satisfy the NYSED’s wishes without compromising our vision for DIRT.”

Mission not in conflict
Pahucki she said DIRT’s mission is to “provide children with the opportunity to reach their full academic and developmental potential and become lifelong learners by fostering interdisciplinary learning, creative and critical thinking skills, high academic achievement, and a deep understanding of the interdependence of our local and global existence,” versus the WVCSD’s mission to “provide all students with the necessary skills to thrive in the 21 Century as learners, workers and citizens,” and is, therefore, not in conflict with the district.

Although in its June 9 letter to the BOE, DIRT said it would build the foundation of STEM education, Pahucki said that the charter will not actually offer STEM education, but will integrate environmental science throughout their curriculum. Students will use the Orange County environment as their laboratory for hands on, interdisciplinary projects which will serve as jumping off points for other subjects, such as English language arts, mathematics, social studies, foreign language, art and music.

Meanwhile, she continued, the WVCSD has made cuts to its foreign language, music and arts departments staff as it continues to embrace Common Core curriculum.

Majority of prospective students not from Warwick

According to DIRT’s letter to the BOE, 62 per cent of prospective students come from outside Warwick. Pahucki said prospective students are signed up from numerous towns in Orange County, while others are from Pearl River, New York City and Brooklyn,.

Positive feedback from Albany

According to Pahucki, NYSED’s feedback to last year’s (at the time, unsuccessful) application was “very positive,” and that group was very close to being approved. She added that it’s “very common for charter applicants to take several years to iron out all the wrinkles." and that NYSED has expressed their desire to “diversify NY’s charter offerings by approving a rural charter school.”

DIRT reduced its initial proposed enrollment from about 252 students to some 100 or so kids: Pahucki said that the charter’s board is trying to find the best fit between what will work financially while taking into account the NYSED’s wish for us to start smaller and work longer towards full enrollment. The group is working up a five-year budget, and expects to know their enrollment targets are by August.

Why use PIE building?

“All districts must transport students to private or charter schools within 15 miles,” Pahucki said, and contended that if DIRT were sited at the periphery of Warwick’s 15-mile radius versus in the center, transportation costs to the district would be greater. “Local districts keep about 1/3 of the tax dollars associated with students to provide transportation. If they don’t use all of it to transport charter students, the local districts keep the difference.”

Helping the local economy

DIRT, Pahucki claimed, would create 43 jobs, 28 of those being teaching jobs. In addition DIRT will contract with local businesses such as lawyers, accountants, building contractors, physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, clothing printers, and insurance.

Co-existence with church possible

Given that the Vision Church (PIE’s current tenant) mainly uses just a portion of the building on weekends and an occasional weeknight, Pahucki believes there should be no issue with the church and DIRT sharing the same space.

She added that the WVCSD board said they’ve been trying to rent PIE to BOCES and other educational organizations. "I would presume they weren’t planning to evict the church if BOCES or another school had accepted.”

Still no response from BOE

Pahucki said that a request to the board to lease PIE went unanswered, save a response from board president Dave Eaton, without any public discussion, input or BOE vote.

“The Pine Island building is owned by Warwick taxpayers, not any one individual,” she said, and added that, since the most recent (June 2014) request to the board, the only response the group received was from board member (and incoming president) Lynn Lillian: “I wanted to acknowledge receipt of your email in Dave’s absence. He will follow up with you on behalf of the board when he returns.”

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