Nonprofit creating a charter school

As Harford adopts policies, church group has hopes to start county's first one

October 19, 2003|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

The doors of Harford County's first charter school may open as soon as September, if all goes according to the plans of a nonprofit organization in Havre de Grace.

For the past year, Rescue One has been discussing, designing and developing plans for a charter school that would emphasize technology and bilingualism, hoping that Maryland would adopt a charter school law.

In June, Maryland became the 40th state with a law making it easier to establish a charter school, a public school organized and run by groups other than local school boards. The law allows the state to compete for $225 million in federal funds available to establish taxpayer-funded charter schools.

Since then, all 24 school districts have been preparing policies approving and overseeing new charter schools to meet a Nov. 1 deadline - when interested parties can begin the application process to establish the schools.

Anne Arundel and Carroll counties have approved their policies in recent weeks, while Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties will consider the issue soon.

Last week, the Harford County Board of Education approved its charter school policy.

"I hope we see some charter schools in the next school year," said Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network. "There are many groups that have done a lot of work already."

Among them is Rescue One - the nonprofit community development corporation of Zion Temple Church in Havre de Grace - which hopes to open its charter school in September at the former Ames Department Store shopping center on U.S. 40.

Rescue One, led by the church's head pastor, LaMont Turner, began three years ago with projects to meet social needs of the community.

Along with the charter school plan, Rescue One also runs a transitional house for single mothers and provides GED and computer classes as well as a drug and alcohol treatment program.

The idea for a charter school began circulating about two years ago when former educators and parents from the Havre de Grace area got together to discuss the concept of school choice, said Turner, who was a former special education teacher in Virginia.

Charter schools don't exist to compete against other public schools, Turner said. Instead, "we want to add a piece onto the [school] curriculum with the understanding that some parents like schools of choice."

The Eagle's Wings Academy Public Charter School planned by Rescue One would focus on teaching pupils, in kindergarten through eighth grade, bilingual education in Spanish and English and computer skills. These two components, Rescue One says, are vital to succeed in a world that's being transformed by changing technology and demographics.

The charter school also will be nonsectarian, as required by the charter school law.

"We're preparing them for the future," said Georgi Hogue, 46, of Havre de Grace, vice president of Rescue One, who has been actively involved in developing the charter school. "More and more of our communities are not English speakers."

Added Sylvia Grimsley, a member of Rescue One: "The goal is to destroy the digital divide in disadvantaged communities. This being a public charter school, we have an opportunity to assist children in disadvantaged communities by providing education in technology."

"The purpose of Eagle's Wings is that every child has an opportunity to soar," Grimsley said. "We believe every child is capable of greatness."

To move the idea along, Rescue One formed a committee that has been meeting weekly for the last year to put together plans related to running a school - everything from developing curriculum goals to budgeting to finding the proper facilities for the school.

Zion Temple Church bought a 90,000-square-foot strip mall on U.S. 40 in Havre de Grace last month to house the proposed charter school on one end and a new church building on the other end. Rescue One will lease space from the church, Turner said.

Nevertheless, the Nov. 1 deadline leaves Rescue One and other possible applicants across the state little time to open their school doors for the next school year. Rescue One, however, is not deterred.

"We spent so much time with this that we're in a better position than those who start now," Grimsley said. "We have a vested interest."

Once Rescue One submits its completed application, the law allows for 120 days for the local school board to approve or deny the application. Rejected applicants can appeal the decision to the State Board of Education under the law.

Harford County School Board President Robert S. Magee said each application will be assessed on its merits. "There are no preconceived notions," he said.

Kathryn Carmello, head of governmental relations for the school system who took on the role of charter school coordinator, has been working with Rescue One officials for several months, answering their questions and helping them through the things that will be part of the application process.

"It's an awesome responsibility for the Board of Education and an awesome responsibility for the charter school," she said. "I want to give them as much guidance as I can this year."

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