A new charter school opened its doors in Harrisburg this fall, the first new facility of its kind to launch in the city in eight years.
The Pennsylvania Steam Academy represents the fourth brick-and-mortar charter school in the city, offering another alternative to the city school district, and it arrived after years of obstacles.
The school district fought against the opening of the new charter, and denied the charter’s first application, but in March, the academy received approval from the Charter School Appeal Board. Carolyn Dumaresq, Chair of the academy’s board, said it’s been a lengthy process, and not just because of the district’s pushback.
“It took a long time to get here,” she said. “It took about two years in planning, researching curriculums, and the programs that we wanted to put in place. Then it took about two and a half years to clear all of the legal hurdles with the district. So it’s been a journey.”
Located at 1500 N. 3rd St. in Harrisburg, the new school nearly reached its capacity in its first year, with a current enrollment of 115 students, most of them from the city, leaving five open spots.
The school has two classrooms each of kindergarten, first grade and second grade, with 120 student seats available. Additional grade levels will be added with an end goal of it becoming a K-8 school over the next six years.
City residents comprise two-thirds of the student body, with one-third of students coming from outside school districts, including Central Dauphin, Steelton Highspire, East Pennsboro, Susquehanna Township, and Camp Hill.
Transportation is provided through local districts, but students who live within a 10-mile radius can still enroll as long as the school has not reached its capacity.
The logistics of opening a new school weren’t the only challenges facing the academy. Educators also noticed that their youngest students needed a lot of direction when school started.
Dumaresq said the youngest students needed much more attention than any other kindergarteners in her 45 plus years in education.
“We had to keep reminding ourselves that many of these children that are coming have never been in a structured environment since last year because of Covid.”
Some children struggled with learning the system.
“For example, basic rules like wait your turn, stand in a line, raise your hand, even how to hold a pencil and a crayon,” Dumaresq said. “These are important procedures and what I call ‘soft skills.’”
Evidence is starting to surface about setbacks in math and reading among older students in the US, according to the news site Chalkbeat. There are no data yet, however, on how the pandemic impacted the country’s youngest learners. Also, there’s no clear guidance for how to catch them up.
But Dumaresq has seen quick progress after students kicked off the school year.
“We have an exceptional staff and the kids are responding,” she said. “I can tell you the difference between the first day and the third day was remarkable. You can tell because they’re having engaged conversations, they’re focused, and learning. What a difference in just three days of routine.”
Jenifer Morrison, the principal of STEAM Academy, said the school is continuing to advance in all aspects to help children learn.
“It was a multi-year journey to get to this point, and we’re forging through,” she said. “Things are going really well and our kids are very lucky to get some of the offerings that we’re able to provide.”
In addition to academic learning, students receive an immersive exposure in the arts as well. Morrison said students walk to the nearby Susquehanna Art Museum for art sessions once a week. Students sit among the displayed works of art while they create their own.
The students come back from the museum feeling happy and confident about their creations, Morrison said.
“Yesterday my kindergartners came back in the building with these amazing little boat and water paintings and they were so excited,” she said. “That’s the kind of experience kids get at Pennsylvania Steam Academy.”
Students also will learn how to play multiple instruments and take dance sessions with Jason Reed, a graduate of the highly competitive and prestigious performing conservatory, The Juilliard School.
Applications are currently open and interested parents can find more information on the school’s website.
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