Most people who spoke at the West Chester Area School Board hearing Wednesday were against allowing a new charter school to open in the district.
The board is considering the application of Valley Forge Classical Academy Charter School, which proponents hope to open in the fall of 2024.
Jenifer MacFarland, the charter’s board president, gave a presentation. If approved, the school would use a curriculum from Hillsdale College, emphasizing classic literature, Singapore Math, Latin, and phonics. The history program would be Hillsdale’s 1776 curriculum, which teaches both good and bad American history, MacFarland said during her presentation. Teachers would use the Socratic method.
Students would also learn the values of honesty, integrity, perseverance, justice, friendship, moderation, responsibility, self-governance, and service.
MacFarland projects an enrollment of 675 students to begin, with 25 students per class. That would increase to 975 after five years. The first year the school would serve kindergarten through eighth grade, adding a year each year afterward until 12 grade, with the first graduating class in 2029.
She said West Chester Area spends $25,000 per pupil as of the 2023-24 school year budget. The Valley Forge would spend $14,883 per regular education pupil. So, the district would save $11,000 per student.
She said some 70 schools nationwide are using the Hillsdale College curriculum. And Hillsdale trainers would train the teachers.
Sandra Schaal of the West Chester NAACP said her organization has “great concerns” about VFCAC. It objected to the 1776 curriculum as “Euro-centric” and “emphasizing American exceptionalism.” The elementary school literature is mostly by White authors and talks about the experiences of White children, she said. “The same is true of the art and music curriculum.”
“For White children, this would deprive them of the broadening of perspective that comes from hearing stories that reflect a variety of backgrounds and experiences. And for the many children in the West Chester Area School District who come from non-Western or non-White backgrounds, the curriculum will provide few examples that reflect themselves or their experiences,” she said.
She noted students would bring brown bag lunches, which poor children might not be able to supply, and required to have “traditional” hairstyles. The NAACP recommended against approval, she said.
Several speakers said they believed the school would discriminate against LGBTQ students. Others said they thought the school would teach Christianity, which MacFarland had explicitly stated that it would not.
“I am really shocked at the lack of a schoolwide library,” one woman said. “A limited use of technology. I also have major concerns over the viewpoints that are put forth through the Hillsdale College curriculum. It really does not allow our students to develop and promote their critical thinking skills.”
She was also concerned about the history curriculum.
MacFarland said each classroom would have a library of books the teachers chose. Students would have limited amounts of time with computers, she said.
Other speakers were concerned about the charter’s financial plan.
“As we say in business, hope is never a good strategy,” one man said.
Resident Mike Winterrode, one of the few speakers who supported the charter school, said he was pleased that it would offer Singapore Math, which “actually teaches students” necessary math skills. Students in Singapore, Japan, and other Asian countries are first in the world in math skills, while West Chester Area students scored only 75.2 percent on the recent Keystone Exams, he said.
Ken Flanagan said parents and students need choices. He noted the charter would save the district more than $5 million.
“This looks like a reasonable proposal,” said Flanagan. “Let the parents and the market decide.”
Asked to comment later, MacFarland said, “As I stated in my presentation, Valley Forge Classical Academy is required by law to accept all children, regardless of their background and race, just as the traditional public schools are required to do so. We will meet the needs of all of the children in our care, and, as our mission states, we will work ‘to inspire (all) students to think with judgment and communicate effectively in pursuit of academic excellence by providing a rigorous classics-based education.’”
DVJournal asked Sharon Ward, senior policy advisor for the Education Law Center, which monitors charter applications and charter schools, about Valley Forge Classical Academy. She had several concerns.
The Law Center assesses the cost to the host district of the charter, which reduces resources for other students in the district, to ensure that all students have access to the school and to determine if all applicable state and local laws are followed.
Ward was also concerned that Hillsdale is a Christian college and “the charter law prohibits establishment of a sectarian school.”
“In addition, the curriculum must be aligned with state standards to ensure that students are getting the education they need to graduate; it is not clear the Hillsdale curriculum meets this test,” said Ward. “We have concerns that the student code of conduct may violate state anti-discrimination laws and regulations, creating an unwelcoming environment for some students. Charters are public schools and must follow state and federal laws regarding nondiscrimination, and the rights of all students, including LGBTQ students, must be respected,” she said.
“There does not appear to be the requisite community support for the school to justify the school, as required under the charter school law,” Ward added.
MacFarland said, “VFCACS is neither a ‘religious’ school nor a ‘Christian’ school. The Christian religions are not taught, nor are they proselytized. All of the major religions are mentioned in history classes, as it is impossible to teach history without recognizing the part those religions have played.”
She said the school would teach the “universally accepted virtues” listed above.
And as for the critics, she said, they “do not have to send their children to the school. It is, after all, a choice. What right do they have in preventing other parents who want their child to attend this school, denying them a school choice option?”
The school board will hold a second meeting on the charter school but has yet to set a date. It is expected to vote on the charter school application by the end of August.