The stage was set for the opening of three new charter schools in Baltimore next year when the city school board voted last night to give its conditional approval to the schools.
The opening of those three - along with the conversion of seven existing schools to charters - will make the city a trailblazer in the state's budding charter school movement.
By next fall, the city will likely have thousands of students from neighborhoods across Baltimore attending the 10 charters, the first such schools approved under a 2-year-old state law.
The city got a jump in 1997 when it began to allow what are called New Schools Initiative schools to open. Seven of these new schools, including Midtown Academy and City Springs Elementary, were converted last night to charter schools
"I think Baltimore has been ahead of the curve in terms of providing more choice in the state," said Bonnie S. Copeland, chief executive officer of the city schools. "We think this is going to be a very rich opportunity for students."
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are approved in Maryland by local school boards but operate independent of the local school bureaucracy. Charters have much more freedom to choose curriculum and teaching staff.
The city school board also has encouraged nonprofit groups and universities to open new small high schools, and it approved one more last night that would be run jointly by Coppin State University and the school system. The high school, which will be located on the Coppin campus, will open in the fall with a ninth grade.
"I think this is a wonderful opportunity for students to be part of a college campus," Copeland said.
The three new charter schools that won conditional approval last night are all pre-kindergarten through eighth grade schools being started by groups of parents who wanted an alternative to their neighborhood public elementary schools.
The schools will get their charters after the city has inspected their facilities, agreed on a formula for providing funding and reviewed the schools' plans for how they will enroll children.
The three new charters are:
Patterson Park Charter School - located in St. Elizabeth's of Hungary, a former parochial school in Patterson Park - that plans to enroll a racially and ethnically diverse student population from neighborhoods adjoining Patterson Park.
Southwest Baltimore Charter School, which will accept children from the Poppleton, Union Square and Franklin Square areas but has not selected a location.
City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore, which also has not settled on a location.
The school system also is in discussions with Sojourner-Douglas College about the possibility of opening a fourth school, according to David Stone, who heads the school system's charter schools office.
The major issue remaining for charter schools in the city and across the state is how much money the local school board is willing to give them per pupil. The existing New Schools Initiative schools have been receiving an amount based on a complicated formula that averages out to about $4,300 per student, but the new charters are concerned that that is too little and are asking for more money.
Copeland said several foundations have agreed to pay for a consultant's study to examine how much funding charter schools should get.
The money for charter schools comes out of the school system's operating budget each year, and critics have argued that the charters will siphon badly needed money from regular public schools.
New charter schools opening next fall
1. Patterson Park Charter School.
2. Southwest Baltimore Charter School.
3. City Neighbors Charter School.
Current schools to be converted to charter status
1. City Springs
2. Hampstead Hill Elementary School
3. Collington Square
4. Empowerment Academy
5. Midtown Academy
7. KIPP Ujima Village Academy