In an about-face, the Anne Arundel County school board approved the bid of a nationally known charter school group to open a school in Annapolis targeting low-performing students.
At least 30 supporters of the proposed school attended the board meeting, and more than a dozen testified to the need for different education approaches for the intended student population of the KIPP Harbor Academy school.
On March 2, the school board had voted 5-3 to reject KIPP's application, though the board voted 6-2 in favor of a proposal for Chesapeake Science Point, a science and technology charter school for middle- and high-schoolers in Glen Burnie.
Community residents questioned the board's rejection of the KIPP application, noting that the school was intended to target students in Annapolis, where educators have long noted a significant achievement gap between white and African-American children.
"Forty years ago, we were a school system that was separate and unequal," business and community leader Clemon Wesley said after the board's reversal. "Today, we have a school system that's integrated and unequal."
The disparity has contributed to generations of poverty, Annapolis parent Steve Johnson testified last night in support of KIPP - the Knowledge is Power Program. "When public schools don't educate, the poverty consequences persist for decades," he said.
Several other parents spoke of their struggles with the school system to get services for their children.
"I didn't finish my education, but I do want them to get theirs," Devera Pounds told the board, referring to her two children and two grandchildren.
Six of the board's eight members attended the session and voted unanimously to approve the application of KIPP, contingent on successful negotiations of a charter agreement by the board's May 18 meeting.
The group hopes to enroll fifth-graders in the KIPP Harbor Academy starting this summer, and eventually to add the middle school grades of sixth through eighth.
KIPP Harbor Academy and Chesapeake Science Point had scored near the middle of a rating scale designed by a committee of school system staff that reviewed the applications. The committee recommended approval of each school, with reservations about areas such as business and finance, facilities and ability to meet state and federal performance mandates for students.
Last night, as well as at the March 2 meeting, school board members noted problems with the state's charter school law, which requires the board to approve applications before details such as facilities have been established.
"It's ambiguous in a lot of areas," said member Tricia Johnson, who earlier had voted against KIPP but in favor of Chesapeake.
Board member Eugene Peterson described the law as "asking public schools to take a blind leap of faith."
But member Paul G. Rudolph defended the law, saying it's better than those in other states.
Member Michael G. Leahy said the board needed to take a chance on programs that could bring innovation to the school system.
"What kind of lesson is that for our children - don't try something because you might fail," he said.
Leahy also questioned the concern some critics have raised about diverting public funds to charter schools, saying there is a notion that "anything that allows someone to do better has to take away from someone else."
KIPP's schools in Baltimore, Washington and elsewhere have achieved success among students, particularly African-Americans and other minorities, who have had histories of low performance on standardized tests.
B. Jallon Brown, who would be the principal of KIPP Harbor Academy, thanked the supporters who spoke on behalf of the program.
"I'm so relieved," Brown said. "We do have a lot of work to do, and we're happy to do it."