How Private Schools Adapt to Vouchers: Youngstown Christian School

Mike Pecchia, president of Youngstown Christian School, confesses that he hasn’t always been a big supporter of school choice.

In 1998, his pastor at Highway Tabernacle Church—which owns Youngstown Christian—led a group that raised $1 million to start a free public charter school. Eagle Heights Academy quickly attracted almost 1,000 students, some of whom might otherwise have attended Youngstown Christian.

Kindergarten teacher Nancy Jacobsen helps two of her charges write sentences.

“I was mad,” acknowledged the gregarious and kinetic Pecchia. Though he wasn’t employed at Youngstown Christian then, he was a board member and his children attended the school, which was barely meeting payroll.

Eagle Heights, which ultimately was engulfed in scandal, has since closed, while Youngtown Christian has expanded and built a $3.5 million high school. The K–12 school would be much different today but for Ohio’s adoption of EdChoice vouchers—state money given to students, beginning in 2006, so they could escape failing public schools and instead attend private schools.

Despite the competition that Eagle Heights posed to Youngstown Christian for more than a decade, Pecchia said his pastor’s motivations were hard to argue with: Poor families deserved a choice other than Youngstown’s poor public schools.

Once a thriving industrial town, gritty Youngstown has been in economic free fall since its last steel mill closed in the 1970s. While unemployment was hollowing out the city, brazenly corrupt leaders, some of whom were taking orders from the mob, made Youngstown a synonym for scandal.

During the 1990s, the federal government ran a ten-year investigation into political corruption in Mahoning County that resulted in jail for a member of Congress, a prosecutor, a sheriff, judges, and a host of others.

Civic dysfunction and decades of middle-class flight amongst both whites and blacks proved devastating for Youngtown’s schools. In 1990, the district enrolled more than 15,000 students. Today, enrollment is around 5,200, though the city contains an estimated 10,000 school-aged children. Community leaders have put much of their hope not in the school board but in Connie Hathorn, who became superintendent in 2011, shortly after the district became the first in Ohio to come under the thumb of the state because of its continuously dismal test scores.

Established in 1975, Youngstown Christian has endured the community’s multiple convulsions and has served as the other religious-school option in a largely Catholic city. When vouchers became available in 2006, the school’s seven-member board—all male, all deacons of the Assemblies of God Christian Highway Tabernacle Church—jumped at the opportunity to attract more Youngstown kids and simultaneously prop up the school’s budget, which was dragged down by $1.2 million in debt, much of it borrowed for the new high school.

Now, eight years later, more than half of the school’s 500-plus students receive EdChoice Scholarships. In 2012–13, Youngstown Christian had the third-largest number of voucher students—284—among the almost 300 private schools in the state that accept them.

About another 12 percent of the school’s students receive the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship, a different kind of state voucher worth up to $20,000 per disabled pupil.

“The word is out that they do a pretty good job,” said Ron Iarussi, superintendent of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center.

Fifty-three-year-old Pecchia, a CPA who was hired by the school in the middle of the first year that the school began accepting state money, has presided over a transformation that has financially stabilized the school but also dramatically changed its mission.

Once largely white and middle to low income, the school is now more than 60 percent minority. Of its 500-plus students, more than 400 were slated to attend a failing Youngstown public school, making them eligible for the EdChoice program. Under Ohio law, eligibility for the EdChoice voucher is determined by the state’s rating of the public-school building a student would have otherwise attended.

In June 2013, Ohio expanded its voucher offerings to an additional 2,000 Kindergartners by creating a new statewide program based upon family income rather than assignment to a failing school. Still, Pecchia worries that what the government gives, it can one day take away.

Meanwhile, increasingly financially strapped suburban schools are knocking at the doors of the same children that Youngstown Christian would like to attract. By Pecchia’s count, nine nearby districts have adopted “open-enrollment” policies and now welcome pupils from beyond their own boundaries.

“It’s becoming more of a marketplace,” said Pecchia, who two years ago raised tuition rates to $4,250 to match the value of the state’s vouchers for elementary students and to $5,000 for high-school students. The school’s sticker prices are misleading, though: after multi-child discounts and financial assistance for struggling families, Youngstown Christian’s average tuition payment is $3,750.

“We’ve got to become a school that attracts more people who can pay,” Pecchia said. “That means the suburbs.” And to ensure that poor families can afford the school, “We have to find a way to raise money for scholarships.”

“The church feeds the poor, clothes the poor, houses the poor,” Pecchia said. “I say, ‘Let’s start educating them.’”

* * *

Private schools, even those with large concentrations of voucher students, are not given state report cards and grades. Joshua Reichard, Youngstown Christian’s academic dean, wishes that they were.

Youngstown Christian High School met all the state’s benchmarks in five subjects.

Monica Perkins is a girls assistant high school basketball coach and middle-school inclusion assistant at the school.

“Our ultimate goal here is lifting kids out of poverty,” Reichard said. “Education is the tool that changes a generation.”

This three-year veteran at Youngstown Christian went on to observe, “Vouchers level the playing field for low-income families wanting a choice.” He’s embarrassed that the Christian school movement was historically driven in part by whites who wanted to avoid sending their children to school with blacks.

“I call what we’re doing intentional integration,” said Reichard, who received his doctorate from South Africa’s University of the Western Cape. “We are not going to be like some other private religious schools.”

Youngstown Christian students come from more than one hundred churches, both Protestant and Catholic. To be admitted, a student’s pastor or priest must sign a referral and attest that the child attends worship services. Pecchia interviews every family and prospective students who are older than fifth grade. He also reviews the essays that prospective upperclassmen write about someone whom they admire.

Reichard said the school rejects some applicants for behavioral reasons, though rarely for academic difficulties. About two or three times each year, a student is asked to leave.

“We have one simple rule,” Reichard said. “Teachers have the right to teach, and students have the right to learn.”

Pecchia said that when students get out of line, he tries to “explain the difference between mercy and grace, but there are still consequences for their actions.”

“Do they own their mistakes? Are they remorseful? And I’ve got to have parental support,” he said. “If I’m missing two of the three, I have a hard time going forward.”

“I’ve taken kids in who were terrible in a public school, and they’re different kids here,” Pecchia said. “But it doesn’t always work out.”

Linda Mansfield was principal at Eagle Heights when the charter school was closed by the state and now serves as Youngstown Christian’s dean of students. A Catholic, she said that Youngstown Christian is successful because “the leadership is involved.”

“The constant is the feeling that God is in the building,” said Mansfield, who also has taught in Youngstown City Schools.

Though she has only taken out “Old Thunder” once in her two years at the school, parents must sign a form that allows the school to use corporal punishment—one of multiple practices that were new to Mansfield.

“If they say ‘damn,’ I call their parents,” she said. When she is investigating misbehavior, “The kids will spill their guts. In a public school, they would never tell on each other.”

Teachers credit Pecchia, who has two students who attend the school living in his home, and Reichard with raising classroom expectations, especially at the high school.

“You’ve got to do your job or you will get fired,” said Joyce Hillman, who teaches Algebra II, advanced math, and calculus. “That’s a hard thing for a Christian to do,” she said. “But we’re here to educate children, not give you a job because you’re a Christian.”

Pecchia’s wife Karen, who is the attendance officer and director of student services, agreed that the school’s instruction wasn’t always rigorous.

“Our curriculum was laid-back,” she said. “Our clientele got different (under vouchers), so we had to be different.”

The transition has not always been easy.

Mike Pecchia said, “We basically told our staff, ‘If you’re not willing to change with us, you’ve got to go.’” He fired half a dozen staff members in the early days after voucher students were accepted.

Nancy Jacobsen, who teaches Kindergarten, drives an hour each way to the school from North Canton because, as she said, “My heart is here.”

She said that she and her husband, a pastor, sent their children to the school because of the diversity—“the cultural, academic, and socioeconomic mix”—of students. The low pay—no teacher earns more than $36,000—is a sacrifice, but she’s willing because “I’m going to have to stand before the throne of God.”

On a day in May 2013, her fifteen students were learning why spiders are not insects, and they eagerly competed to identify sight words on a SMART Board. “We expect a lot,” Jacobsen said.

That same day, Mick Naples, who teaches Bible class to upper-grade pupils, was leading a discussion about service to God.

Talking about dating, Naples, told the male students that they should “guard” the “purity” of their dates. “You will be held accountable for what you do, what you do with His daughter,” Naples said.

In Nicole Blaze’s law class, students were reviewing the differences between burglary, robbery, and theft.

One student joked, “I’m still not happy. We didn’t do a mock trial. I want to come to school in a suit and with a briefcase.”

Monica Perkins is one of the school’s few African American staffers. A basketball coach for the girls’ team and a middle-school inclusion assistant, she said that teachers are “color blind” in their relationships with students.

Brenda Williams’s grandson, Kerrington Tucker, graduated from Youngstown Christian last year, though he split his time between Youngstown Christian and Choffin Career and Technical Center, which is operated by Youngstown City Schools. A voucher student, he had attended Youngstown’s Chaney High School as a freshman, but Tucker said it was a “horrible experience.”

“Everything he took to school, they robbed him blind,” said his grandmother.

Youngstown leaders know there is a widespread perception that the city’s public schools are unsafe and are plagued by constant change and turmoil—public sentiment that was documented in a 2012 study by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. The study also said that citizens are supportive and proud of a select few programs (Chaney’s science, technology, engineering, and math program and the district’s early-college academy, which met all the state’s indicators in 2012–13, are two such examples).

Pecchia said he wants to see the city’s public schools succeed, if only because he doesn’t have the capacity to educate 5,000 students. But he also believes Youngstown is consciously trying to limit students’ eligibility for vouchers.

The district has mostly eliminated its middle schools by moving sixth graders to elementary schools and seventh- and eighth-graders to the high schools. While Pecchia concedes that Youngstown has had to close schools because of slumping enrollment, the new assignments mean large numbers of students who would have been eligible for vouchers next year won’t be for at least two years.

Voucher eligibility hinges on attending a school that received a “D” or “F” grade for two out of three years. When students are assigned to a school that didn’t exist before, the clock resets.

“They move kids around constantly,” Pecchia said. “One of the motivations is to reduce the number of kids who are eligible for EdChoice.”

District superintendent Hathorn did not return calls requesting comment.

Youngstown Christian leaders are considering all of their options to make sure that the school—and its mission—continues, with or without vouchers. Pecchia even thinks about the possibility of becoming a charter school, though that would eliminate religiously based instruction during the school day.

“The Lord has us here for a reason,” Karen Pecchia said. “He brought us the kids on vouchers, and he’ll deliver us other kids.”

—Ellen Belcher

This case study is drawn from Pluck and Tenacity: How five private schools in Ohio have adapted to vouchers, by Ellen Belcher, published by the Fordham Institute earlier this month.  Another case study, of Dayton’s Immaculate Conception School, is available here.

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