Seeking educational alternatives

Columbia: A group of parents again tries to establish a charter school.

April 20, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Realizing that her shy daughter needed more individualized attention and a smaller learning environment, Tristan Rynn pulled Fauston out of first grade at then-Dasher Green Elementary School in Columbia in December 2003 and has been home-schooling her ever since.

However, Rynn, a native of Columbia who graduated from its schools, is a firm believer in public schools. "There's no alternative unless you put your kid in private school," she said.

So Rynn and other parents like her are proposing another solution: a charter school in Columbia that would incorporate a child's specific learning style into the curriculum. Even in Howard County - which boasts the top-ranked school system in Maryland - there's a need for such an alternative, say founders of the Columbia Public Charter School.

"The school system is great, but they don't hit all the aspects," said Chuck Thompson, whose eldest daughter is a first-grader at Phelps Luck Elementary School. "We're looking for differences in style and focus in teaching kids."

Their first attempt to open the school was rejected last year by the Howard County Board of Education, which has authority to approve local charters.

The parents are trying again this year. And after expressing serious reservations about the charter's management, curriculum and accountability last week, the school board postponed a vote on the application until its April 28 meeting to give the group time to address these concerns.

"The board, as a whole, has an obligation under the [state] law to make sure all charter school requests are reviewed thoroughly before we make a decision," said school board chairman Courtney Watson. "I believe that all board members are opened to the possibility of a charter school."

Charters are public, tax dollar-funded schools organized and run by groups other than local school boards. It has become an increasingly popular option for parents who believe public education has become too generic.

A majority of the nation's approximately 3,400 charter schools have been established by parents, according to Anna Varghese, vice president for external affairs of the Center for Education Reform.

"Parents want choice," said Joni Berman, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, who served as a technical adviser to Howard's charter review committee. "Just because scores in a district are good does not mean every student is being taught at the highest level, that schools are doing everything they can for a student."

In 2003, Maryland passed legislation to enable the creation of charter schools. This fall, a number of charter schools across the Baltimore region are slated to open, including five in Baltimore City and two in Anne Arundel County.

Charter schools must meet all county, state and federal accountability standards, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In exchange, charters have flexibility in management, staffing and instructional focus, such as an emphasis on foreign language, special education or longer school days.

The Columbia Public Charter School would serve 90 pupils, kindergarten through fifth grade, with class size capped at 15.

With public school systems facing tighter budgets and increasing enrollment, teachers have less freedom and flexibility in the classroom, said Robin Rynn, Tristan Rynn's sister and another charter founder.

The charter school curriculum would be taught using a "multisensory" approach, meaning instruction would be tailored to an individual child's needs. For instance, one pupil might conduct hands-on experiments to learn lessons, while another might be successful through music or role-playing.

The school also would focus on character development, foreign language and parental involvement that would require at least 40 volunteer hours each school year.

"If [school board members] believe in No Child Left Behind, then they should support a charter school," said Ramel Rollins, Fauston's father and one of the charter's founders. "It's a tailor-made program for children."

Howard school officials say they're not opposed to charter schools.

"People who want alternative approaches should have those available to them," said Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. "We have some level of responsibility to making it successful because they are public school kids."

But a 34-member charter review committee recommended to the school board last week that the application for the Columbia Public Charter School be rejected, noting numerous concerns.

Among them were a lack of a solid foundation to implement its vision and goals and a lack of a clear accountability plan to make sure pupils would meet high-stakes standards, as well as concerns over conflict of interest and building requirements.

The school's founders attributed the committee's concerns in part to the review process, where small groups evaluated portions of the application before coming together as a larger group. They said the same group of reviewers should assess the application beginning to end for consistency and a better understanding.

The applicants also said the process didn't allow for them to address the committee's concerns during its review - a reason cited by the school board to delay its vote.

"Even if the ethics issue and the issue with the building are resolved, I still want to be convinced that the education quality will be as good or better than the ones offered in other schools in Howard County," said board member Joshua Kaufman.

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