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Private Problem, Public Debate: Growth of charters present PIAA with a new wrinkle

This is Part 3 of a four-part series looking at the public-vs-private schools debate in the PIAA. Part 1 covers the disproportionate share of PIAA titles won by private schools, while Part 2 recaps the complex entanglements between the legislature and the PIAA. Part 4 delves into the role that transfers and recruiting play in seeking competitive balance, plus we have a web exclusive exploring how competitive balance is tackled across the United States.

Upon the first step into the Midland Gym, the history of the place confronts you, just as the vivid mural of a leopard punching its fore claws through a stylized brick wall purports to.

Besides the fresh coats of paint and fastidious adherence to color scheme, the gym is incongruous to the modern building that stands next door. And the history it depicts — of championships won in sports the current occupant has never sponsored — reinforces that juxtaposition. It’s understandable to wonder for a moment whose gym this is, a contrast that only heightens its unique character.

Painted on the walls along the sidelines, in big blue letters outlined in gold, are the words “Midland Leopards”. Plastered at midcourt is a gargantuan “M” in the opposite color scheme. Half of the inscription remains true, but the team that calls this floor home is Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, which inherited this facility, the old public Lincoln High School that served the Midland School District until 1986. The relationship between the school and this former steel town, with a population about a quarter of its industrial-boom heights, is complex and historically rich, a microcosm that intersects countless dimensions of national significance.

But as students, culled from some 80 school districts and eight counties spanning a wide swathe of southwestern Pennsylvania, file in to cheer on the newest incarnation of the Leopards, the school’s trajectory epitomizes much more. And the salient symbolism of the 2011 and 2014 Class A boys basketball finals — pitting Lincoln Park against Philadelphia Math, Civics and Sciences in all-charter PIAA championships — could be snapshot of growth in a sector of evolving prominence.

Since Pennsylvania passed its charter school law in 1997, the profusion of charters has been steady, though they are still dwarfed by other private schools in terms of sporting achievement. In the 2016-17 academic year, the PIAA counted just 40 of its 765 high school members as charters, a shade over five percent. Athletically speaking, charters are often limited, given the enormous outlay of funds required to launch and maintain programs. The prevalence of charters as alternatives for urban populations encounters the challenge of open space for sports, which even legacy urban institutions struggle with.

Since the 2008-09 academic year, charter schools have won eight PIAA titles. All but Imhotep Charter’s 2015 football title have occurred in boys basketball, and the Philadelphia school owns six of the championships. The others stemmed from those two all-charter boys hoops finals, the first claimed by MCS in 2011 and Lincoln Park avenging that loss in 2014.

More pertinently, charter schools and other categories of schools that defy simple labels — like the open enrollment network of the Philadelphia Public League — present a fly in the ointment of sorting processes like the boundary definition conundrum explained Tuesday. When is a public school not really a public school? And how does that shape the balance of power between the private and public sets as charters grow in influence in the classroom and on the fields of play?


Google “Midland PA basketball” and you’ll be presented with a question that seems at first an odd wrinkle in the algorithm. “Which was the best high school basketball team in the state of Pennsylvania?,” a result will inquire. The answer leads straight through Midland, nestled on the banks of a crook in the Ohio River 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Midland’s 1965 team was the first of six PIAA finalists and five champs produced by what was also known as Lincoln High School. The ’65 squad produced two pros — NBAer Norm Van Lier and ABA vet Simmie Hill — and went 28-0, routing Steelton-Highspire, 90-61, in the PIAA Class AAA championship game, the final chapter of a legend inscribed in stone in those parts.

“I was in fifth grade at the time and I remember the games in the home gym, if you didn’t get there before the JV game started, you didn’t get a seat,” said Chris Shovlin, a 1972 Midland grad, the president of the Midland Sports Hall of Fame and a member of the Lincoln Park School Board. “They would turn people away.”

Math, Civics & Sciences Charter’s Jeremiah Worthem (21) tries a shot over Lincoln Park Charter’s Devontae Watson during the 2011 PIAA Class A boys basketball final, won by MCS, 68-57. That game marked the first all-charter PIAA final, perhaps a sign of things to come from a growing segment of the Pennsylvania educational landscape. (AP File)

But another material once thought solid determined the town’s trajectory: Steel. The planned community was incorporated in 1906, a year after Midland Steel Company was founded. As the Pittsburgh Crucible Steel Company, the 423-acre site once employed 4,700 workers, swelling Midland’s population to more than 6,500 in the 1950s and supplying a baby-boom hoops dynasty that served as a tent pole for the area’s civic identity.

“When we were growing up, we felt like Midland’s just a little steel mill town,” Shovlin recalls. “We were a bunch of blue-collar kids and blue-collar people, and being able to step up and win a title was a big, big deal. It really was a feather in the cap of the whole community.”

Then the nation’s steel industry cratered in the early 1980s. Crucible sold to Jones & Laughlin, which maintained the plant with a mere 200 jobs. It was shuttered for good March 10, 1982, residents turning out to see the foundries belch smoke for the final time in an event whose significance one resident equated to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The decimated population and financial stress caved in the Midland Borough School District, which closed its high school in 1986 and began bussing students to Beaver Area School District. When Beaver terminated that arrangement in 1994 — while Shovlin’s father, William, was serving one of four terms as Midland’s mayor — students were shipped across state lines (about eight miles) to East Liverpool, Ohio, in an unprecedented agreement that left many in Midland deeply stung by a perceived betrayal from the powers in Pennsylvania. Though numbers dwindled, the East Liverpool lifeline extended until 2015.

Enter Lincoln Park Charter, which sprung from PA Cyber Charter Schools (formerly “Western PA” upon its founding in 2000). By 2002, the cyber-charter success inspired founder Nick Trombetta, the former Midland superintendent who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the district’s collapse and also taught and coached wrestling in East Liverpool, to launch a brick-and-mortar school. Performing arts would be the hook for both widespread recruitment and to entice substantial funding from Governor Ed Rendell’s administration.

It quickly became clear that a physical school, Shovlin said, would entail basketball in homage of the past. And while the official school colors, as voted on by students, were black and silver, there was little doubt that the Leopards, as ever, would wear gold and blue.

“One of the caveats of opening the school in our community was to bring basketball back,” Shovlin said. “What it did, it invigorated the home community where the school is located. That’s why basketball is back in Midland, they wanted to honor the tradition and heritage that is high school sports.”


The history of Lincoln Park is messy (see scandals involving the children of former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum attending the cyber charter while living in Virginia, or that Trombetta is awaiting sentencing on a federal fraud conviction after siphoning more than $8 million from the accounts of the school and other educational entities). But it illustrates two key points influencing the public/private conversation.

First, it speaks to school choice as an increasingly potent factor for kids … and by extension, athletes. Second, Lincoln High’s role in propping up the pride of a flagging town like Midland in the 1970s demonstrates the power high school athletics possess on institutions and populations. It’s not difficult to graft Lincoln’s role as a salve for distressed areas onto towns in any corner of the state.

Structurally speaking, charter schools’ nuances render tidy distinctions between public and private obsolete. Charter schools are not private schools: They are funded by taxpayer money, with a percentage diverted from a student’s school district of residence to the charter. Charters are bounded, but their sphere can have the vastness of a private school, with some serving multiple districts or, in the case of Philadelphia and other metropolitan areas, drawing freely from a multi-high-school district. Charters also enjoy a level of selectivity — as a performing arts school, for instance, Lincoln Park requires auditions for its various programs — liberated from many traditional public school obligations. That dichotomy informs the PIAA’s circuitous language in the 2011 boundary/non-boundary proposal, with public and private no longer adequate signifiers for their aims.

From a functional perspective, charters present dual eligibility: By law, the PIAA must grant a student in a charter or cyber-charter eligibility at their home district if the sport program is not offered at their charter. Attendance in the charter avails them to the sporting opportunities of that school. That means that athletes can represent different schools, since the PIAA determines eligibility by sport season.

“That dual eligibility is not correct, but it follows state law and we will follow state law,” PIAA executive director Dr. Robert Lombardi told PA Prep Live last week. “But I think that will be troubling.”

So vexing is the charter schools situation that it commanded the 2014 meeting of the Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee (PAOC) — just days after the second Lincoln Park-MCS state final, uncoincidentally. Lincoln Park was at the forefront of marshaling support then, in part out of concern that the PIAA might exclude charters from tournaments.

One letter of testimony was provided by Matt Ehrlich, the Director of Athletics at MaST Charter in Philadelphia. Among his contentions was a line that strikes at the heart of the debate (pdf).

“Athletics are a learning tool — just like every classroom subject,” Ehrlich wrote. “They are central to social development, building confidence, fostering growth and team-building, and these intangibles are priceless components of the overall school experience regardless of the win/loss record. Are charter schools students not entitled to these essential skills in the confines of their own school building?”

Public schools probably engaged in similar discussions many years ago as to the merits of interscholastic athletics, but the only difference in the benefits there of is that the atmosphere then wasn’t as charged as the current moment.

“We think sports enhance a kid’s development,” said Patrick K. Poling, the principal and CEO of Lincoln Park. “It can’t be just school.”

“Principals will want an athletic program not to attract students but to have that school environment and culture and everything like that that encourages school spirit,” said James Patrick Lynch, the Executive Director of Athletics for the School District of Philadelphia and a member of the District 12 committee overseeing public, private and charter schools in Philadelphia. “That’s why charters want athletics.”

The charters bring into sharp relief the impact of sports, a dimension often lost in the championship conversation. In this context, there seems little difference between a basketball team and a pep band or math club. Those types of extracurricular activities are trappings of the school climate that students and parents seek. They foster community. They bolster college resumes and strengthen children’s development in social and intellectual aspects that classrooms alone can’t. They may be resource intensive and competitive, but they’re the kinds of program necessary to attract kids to a school.

Ultimately then, what difference between a basketball team and a math club is there other than the fact that fans tend to buy tickets to watch one and not the other?


Lynch’s position in the Public League inherently entails a fair amount of contradiction, and one such conundrum is the notion that the Pub harbors some grand advantage by its semi-open borders.

Constitution High School players celebrate after the 2015 PIAA Class A boys basketball final in Hershey’s Giant Center, an 85-53 win. Teams in the Philadelphia Public League exist in a gray area where they are geographically bounded, but those boundaries can merely be the entire city of Philadelphia, in some cases. (AP File)

Indeed, schools from the Public League have enjoyed success at the state level, particularly in boys basketball. Four Pub teams have won PIAA championships in the last nine seasons, and three others have made state finals. Swenson Arts and Technology High in Northeast Philly is a powerhouse with three girls track and field titles.

Outsiders often tar the Pub with a similar brush as many private and charter schools, in part because similar cohorts of players — most conspicuously in the boys basketball carousel — will cycle through those institutions in their careers, some attending as many as four destinations. The scope of the logistical challenge for the School District of Philadelphia creates complex enrollment rules that fall short of a completely open system. Some schools, Lynch explains, are special admission institutions that kids test into. Others are neighborhood comprehensive schools, while other magnet schools cater to specific subject areas and can pull from a broader area. The nuance aims to offer students the best chance to succeed in a volatile landscape beset by under-performing or resource-poor infrastructure and quaked by frequent closures. Athletically, Pub schools draw from an area bounded only by the borders of the largest city in the Commonwealth.

But Lynch pushes back on an assertion some external observers harbor: That all this upheaval somehow confers a competitive advantage whereby talent in the city can aggregate around a program or coach. It’s an argument that smacks of a rural-vs.-urban divide whose ramifications extend far beyond sports.

“It’s definitely a complicated dynamic, but obviously being a major city school district and having traditional public, charter and Catholic schools, it’s one of those catch-22s,” Lynch said. “You go out to a suburban school and you have people knocking down doors and filling seats that don’t have to worry about that. Then you come to city schools that don’t have the best resources.”

The proximity of programs to a mecca of basketball talent like Philadelphia is an undeniable benefit. But the daily inner workings aren’t always glamorous. Lynch fails to see how a school like Constitution, a three-time PIAA champ and four-time state finalist, gleans an advantage from having to bus its team to practices and games. Or how MCS Charter, with its three state final appearances, appealed to the public in 2015 to find a gym to play in just weeks before the season started, then turned to crowdfunding to aid the team’s finances. The constraints are even more pronounced for football teams with the city’s preciously limited green space, and the dearth of viable fields distorts the weekly schedule to stretch from Thursday afternoons to Saturday nights.

It takes an uncommon level of dedication to be a high school athlete in Philadelphia, Lynch believes, wherever those athletes choose to play.

“Our student athletes that want to participate and want to play are the ones you’re going to see because they’re the ones taking three buses to go to practice or two trains and the subway to come home,” Lynch said. “We have kids traveling across the city every day for practices, for games, for everything.”


Shovlin, the VP at Lincoln Park, could wistfully spin yarns about the old days in Midland for hours. He recounts the Leopards selling out Pitt’s Fitzgerald Fieldhouse for a WPIAL title game in 1964, or his first road trip in 1965 to the state final at the olfactory experience that is the Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg.

But there’s a new story he wants to tell.

It’s about Nelly Cummings, the 6-foot Lincoln Park point guard who led the Leopards to more than 100 wins in his high school career. Cummings is a Bowling Green commit in the class of 2017 who finished his high school career with 2,411 points, fifth-most in the storied basketball history of the WPIAL.

But to Shovlin, Cummings stands for more than his stat line. A throwback player, Cummings lives in Midland, as do several teammates. Both of his grandfathers played for Midland. The local contingent harkens to the old days, before buses had to traverse a sprawling realm with a radius of an hour or more to deliver education to Midland’s residents.

That mission is something Shovlin cares deeply for. While he admits that many people’s loyalty to Lincoln Park differs from their abiding affinity for the old Lincoln, it’s a necessary adaption to the times, the survive-or-perish admonition that he and his town has sadly endured both sides of. Even with that shift, Shovlin understands that the games transpiring at the gym festooned in blue and gold might be just as important to some wide-eyed fifth-grader in the stands as they once were to him.

“It’s a little bit different. There are some people who say, ‘that’s not Midland’s basketball team,’” Shovlin said. “And it’s true, because it’s Lincoln Park’s basketball team.”

In Thursday’s paper: What lies ahead for the PIAA in trying to sort out the public vs. private conundrum?



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