`Go-slow' policy on charter schools

City takes wary approach

18 groups weigh proposals

Sites can't open until fall 2005

May 11, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

A group of Northeast Baltimore parents believed they had solved the toughest question for those in the city with school-age children: Where would they send their children to school? They would build their own.

They found the perfect space, a church with a school building that sat empty on weekdays and a congregation eager to offer it rent-free. They planned the curriculum and applied for $700,000 in foundation and federal grants. They even lined up 60 students, most of them attending private and parochial schools, who wanted to enroll in what would be the city's first charter school next fall.

"We bring so many parents into the system who would be paying [private school] tuition," said Bobbi Macdonald, president of the board of City Neighbors Charter School.

But their plans are on hold as they wait to see whether Baltimore school officials will let City Neighbors open in the fall.

Despite passage of a state law more than a year ago authorizing charter schools in Maryland, the city school system has adopted a "go-slow" policy that won't permit the first Baltimore charter school until fall 2005 - and then won't let more than three such schools open in the first three years. The parents have asked for an exception to the policy.

With the city schools enduring a financial crisis and many Baltimore parochial schools closing, the school board will be handling a flood of applications from nonprofit organizations and parent groups who want to create new public schools.

City Neighbors is one of 18 groups in the city - and about 40 statewide - considering the idea of opening a charter school. Most would be in neighborhoods where the regular public schools are crowded or low performing.

Charter schools offer the city a chance to revitalize marginal neighborhoods and to stabilize others, advocates argue, because they keep families from fleeing for public and private schools elsewhere.

"The city is hemorrhaging children every year," said Erika Brockman, who heads a committee trying to start the Southwest Baltimore Charter School. "This seems like the best way to stay in Baltimore and to get the best education for my children."

Under the new state law, charters remain public schools and receive funding based on the number of pupils who attend. They don't charge tuition and cannot have entrance criteria. The schools accept children from defined neighborhoods or zones; and if there are more applicants than spots, children are chosen by lottery.

Teachers and administrators are part of the teachers union and receive benefits and salary as though they were teaching in regular public schools.

But charter schools provide their parents and founders with freedom to pick their curriculum and set their spending priorities. So if a financial crisis hits the public schools, as it has, charter schools would have more freedom to decide where to put resources.

There are three well-organized groups seeking to open schools, said Laura Weeldreyer, coordinator for charter and new school initiative schools in the city.

In addition to City Neighbors, which would be at Epiphany Lutheran Church at 4301 Raspe Ave. in Northeast Baltimore, there is a group in Patterson Park and another in Southwest Baltimore centered around Union Square.

`In every neighborhood'

"What is really striking to me is that they are in every neighborhood," said Carol Beck, a project director for the Center for Educational Reform, a Washington nonprofit group that promotes charter schools. Beck is working with the local groups to provide legal and financial advice.

The Patterson Park school would be located at the old St. Elizabeth's school building and would take in children from several neighborhoods, including Patterson Park, Patterson Place, Butchers Hill, Fells Prospect, Highlandtown and Canton.

"It seems to me that this area is highly diverse, more so than in many parts of Baltimore City," said Stephanie Simms, chairwoman of the Patterson Park Public Charter School committee. She points to the area's emerging Latino population, as well as a mix of African-American, Native American and white families.

The school, she said, would like to ensure that diversity is reflected in the school and is setting up a system that takes half of its students from neighborhoods at each end of the park.

While other school proposals may not be able to boast the same degree of diversity, a number of parents said they want to make sure there is racial and economic diversity in their schools. In many cases, they said, that is what attracted them to city living.

In the next few weeks, the school system is likely to decide how quickly to let the city's charter schools movement move forward. "I am very much in favor of public charter schools," schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland said recently.

But Copeland said the system must first establish protocols for how to objectively examine and compare applications - and then how to calculate what each school would cost the school district.

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