Charter School of the Arts looks to open in Cheektowaga

A school bus waits for students at a town school on February 8, 2017. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)
A school bus waits for students at a town school on February 8, 2017. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)

CHEEKTOWAGA – The State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institue could soon greenlight the first charter school in the Town of Cheektowaga after reviewing comments from an upcoming public hearing on Tuesday, August 7th.

The brainchild of retired Army Reserve instructor and current substitute teacher, Shirley Wagstaff, the idea of the Charter School of the Arts has been in the research phase since 2005.

“Three years ago, I started to go out into the community speaking to people and doing surveys.  Before that I was doing a lot of research on and off as far as curriculum,” says Ms. Wagstaff.

The idea behind her school would eliminate the need for struggling families to shell out the extra bucks needed to have their kids attend dance class or music lessons after school.

“A very strong academic program, but also a program that was very strong in the arts where our kids would be able to take different art forms in one location, but also would not be so cost prohibitive,” she says.

The school will open in September 2019 if the state greenlights its charter.  It will start with grades K-1 with an estimated enrollment of 150 students.  It will expand by a grade level each year after and by year five, eyes an enrollment upwards of 450 kids.

“We’re going to have a lot of hands-on based instruction.  A lot of children are very visual and hands-on and for some people that helps them get involved and have a better understanding of what they’re being taught and they take away more from it rather than just being lectured to all the time,” says Ms. Wagstaff.

The school would employ six full-time academic teachers, four part-time art teachers, two special education teachers, and two teaching assistants in year one.  Ms. Wagstaff says the school will be a free public school, that will be funded by state-paid tuition and state grants.

Every student will take art and music classes as part of their everyday curriculum, and the school will contract out to other arts organizations to teach additional dance, music, and theatre classes after school.

“If we try to put all these art classes in the regular school day it would take away from the academics, and I don’t want to take away from the academics at all.  That has been the problem with a lot of the performing arts schools.  The academics suffer because [the students] are going to extra art classes,” added Ms. Wagstaff.

She hopes to employ 18 full-time academic teachers, four full-time art teachers, three special education teachers, and three teaching assistants by year five.

The school would be established somewhere inside the boundaries of the Cheektowaga Central School District.  The exact location is not known yet, but Ms. Wagstaff says former Catholic school buildings have been scouted as potential locations.

Cheektowaga Central Superintendent Mary Morris tells Cheektowaga Chronicle that she has some concerns – both practical and financial – regarding the potential for a charter school in her district’s boundaries.

“My understanding of the philosophy behind a charter school is that it’s supposed to provide something that the public school doesn’t,” says Ms. Morris.  “We really do have a wonderful arts program here – drama, music, art itself, visual arts, graphic arts – so, I’m not quite sure what we’d be lacking to justify itself.”

She says the addition of a charter school will also have a financial impact on the district.

“Traditionally, the tuition for charter school kids, not counting their transportation which is much more for my kids here, is traditionally higher by at least $500 per kid,” says Ms. Morris.

Currently, 107 K-12 kids living in the Cheektowaga Central School District attend charter schools around Western New York.  Ms. Morris says it’s the district’s responsibility to pay for the student’s tuition and transportation costs – a current price tag of $1.6 million.

That number is expected to rise with the addition of a new charter school.

“Because [Charter School of the Arts] is within my boundary, I have to be prepared that all 150 kids would come from Central, which would mean about $1.9 million in expense for us,” said Ms. Morris.  “If I were to look at it strictly from a personnel point of view, I would have to cut 26 teachers to make that number.”

She says the other school districts in Cheektowaga could see a financial impact as well if students from those districts attended the new charter school.  The State of New York does kick in some financial aid to help according to Ms. Morris, but it’s always a year behind.

“You have to cut a lot more of your own programming to be able to fund the charter school, but your class sizes increase dramaticly because it’s a dramatic amount of money for a small amount of children,” said Ms. Morris.

The addition of a new school in the Town of Cheektowaga comes on the heels of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s frank discussion of too many school districts.  He used the Town of Cheektowaga as an example saying that there are eight school districts servicing the Town of Cheektowaga – the five major ones and three smaller ones on our border; Williamsville, West Seneca, and Lancaster.

Mr. Poloncarz’s administration did not respond to our request Friday seeking comment about the potential for an additional school in Cheektowaga.

“At least with the other Cheektowagas we do share services,” said Ms. Morris. “There is no sharing of services with a charter school, they’re their own entity, and they follow their own rules.”

Following New York Education Law, a public hearing is being held by Cheektowaga Central on Tuesday, August 7th, at 6 pm at the Cheektowaga High School Large Group Instruction Room.

Ms. Morris believes that there will be a mix of teachers who oppose the idea of the school and charter school representatives who support the idea, but she says it’s important to hear from the families of the district.

“My job is to serve the families of this district, so, I would like to hear from the families of what they want.  For the 2,100 children who go to school here, I think it would be important for them to come out and voice their opinion about a charter school coming into their district,” added Ms. Morris.

Ms. Wagstaff hopes the community critics don’t view the new school as an adversary to the public schools, but something that compliments what’s already in place. 

“We’re not trying to compete or outdo the schools that are already in the district.  We’re trying to offer something extra for students that may be missing out on an opportunity to take more than one or two art classes a week,” added Ms. Wagstaff.

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