Propel East Charter School stands across from the 12 brick smokestacks of the former Homestead Works, a ghost from the town's once-prosperous past.
Inside, drama students from Carnegie Mellon University read to elementary students, and students recite poetry, dance and watch a film they made with the help of the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre.
Ten years after passage of the state's charter school law, though, achievement at Propel East and most charter schools in Pennsylvania lags behind that of their home districts.
Charter school students in Pennsylvania on average aren't performing as well on standardized tests as students in regular public schools, a study by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review shows.
In addition, average test scores of charter school students fell below the averages in the students' home school districts, the data show.
"Evidence around the country demonstrates that those who considered charter schools a magic bullet were wrong," said Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a public policy group based in Harrisburg. "They are not."
Some school districts have squared off against charter schools, because school districts must pay for the education of charter school students living within their borders. The state reimburses districts, but only for a fraction of the cost.
But some charter schools like Downtown's City High outshine other public schools, and advocates of charter schools say state tests don't measure how much a child improves while in school.
"People choose charter schools because they're having a problem in the regular school," said Timothy Daniels, executive director of the Chester County-based Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools. "How do kids do when they came, and what value did the school add? There's really no way to get that."
In June 1996, then-Gov. Tom Ridge signed a law allowing the creation of charter schools. The schools were freed of many burdens of traditional public schools, such as teacher contracts and some state regulations. In return, they were supposed to be models for reform and engines of change.
"Parents tend to believe that charter schools can miraculously transform students," said state Rep. James R. Roebuck, a Philadelphia Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee. "The reality is, if your kid isn't performing, if you take him out of a regular school and put him in a charter school, he doesn't automatically become brilliant."
Gary Miron, chief of staff at The Evaluation Center of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, has studied charter schools in eight states, including Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania's charters rank in the middle, in terms of performance, he said.
Miron cites unstable school leadership, school districts unwilling to sponsor charter schools, lack of oversight, poorly qualified teachers and high turnover among staff and students as problems in Pennsylvania.
Daniels, with the charter schools coalition, said five to 10 charter schools in the state serve tough-to-teach students -- youths with behavioral problems, trouble with the law or autism. Two charters serve gifted students.
Charter schools in Pennsylvania are more likely than traditional public schools to serve low-income students, according to state data on the number of children receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Statewide, 47 percent of students in charter schools come from low- income homes, compared to 33 percent in traditional public schools.
At City Charter High School, state test scores are 16 percentage points higher than Pittsburgh Public Schools' in reading and 12 points higher in math.
Located Downtown in the renovated Clark Building, the school gives every student a laptop to keep upon graduation. The school year is 190 days -- nine …