An Alt School in Steel City


When Randy Bartlett decided to open a new school for Pittsburghers who wanted an alternative to the city's public system, he knew it couldn't be a charter school.

"I worked 12 years in charter schools, and I have nothing against those schools," he says. "But if they were initially created to serve as the research and development wing of the public education system, they are not really fulfilling that function. Pennsylvania's regulatory burden is too heavy."

Opening a charter school in Pittsburgh is incredibly difficult, thanks to staunch opposition by the board of directors for Pittsburgh Public Schools. In February, the body rejected a bid from Imani Christian Academy, which wanted to become a secular charter school. It also attempted to stop Catalyst Academy, a proposed college preparatory K–8 institution, but lost at the state's Charter School Appeal Board.

"Obviously there needs to be rigorous review of applications, and not anyone should just be opening a school. But the process can be so onerous that the state's charter school law is rendered moot," says Catalyst CEO Brad Smith.

Instead of going up against the education bureaucracy, Bartlett decided to launch an "alternative school," called City of Bridges High School. Alt schools can come in all shapes and sizes, but they generally encourage self-guided learning and democratic processes.

After applying for incorporation and 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, Bartlett's team still had to clear the city's zoning hurdles, then deal with occupancy and facilities regulations. But the process was still easier than trying for a charter. "Filing with the Pennsylvania State Department of Education is not difficult," he explains. "Just time consuming."

When City of Bridges opens in fall 2019, kids will be able to arrive as early as 8 a.m. to work on projects, but the day will not officially start until 9:30, when they'll join with faculty for "Morning Circle," an opportunity for meditating, singing, and announcements. Pupils will study math and foreign languages, pursue self-guided projects, and participate in rotating courses on architecture, theater, and other topics that don't fit neatly into standard state-issued curricula.

Bartlett has enrolled 10 students and hopes to start the year with a freshman class of 25. The goal, he says, is to help the kids develop skills to solve problems, be resilient in the face of failure, and collaborate with their peers and practitioners.

Oh, and they'll also have to clean up at the end of every day. "We recognize that some boundaries and structure are good for development," he says. Not to mention, learning to keep things neat and tidy is a useful life skill for any teenager.