Charters open the school year

Thousands of Maryland students join educational experiment.

August 30, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF WRITER

Dressed in a crisp white shirt and neatly pressed khakis, Corey Neal arrived at his new Annapolis charter school yesterday at precisely 7:30 a.m., prepared for classes that will run until 5 p.m. and for a stringent code of conduct.

Corey was among thousands of Maryland students who joined an educational experiment yesterday, as 10 new charter schools opened their doors in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County. Before yesterday, Maryland's only charter school was in Frederick County.

The charter schools are the first to open since a 2003 state law required local school boards to establish policies for allowing charter schools, which receive government funds but have greater freedom in curriculum and policies. Four more charter schools plan to open Sept. 6, and two more are hashing out details.

Area school and union officials statewide say they will be watching closely to see how the charter schools fare.

"Even if [districts] don't have applicants on their doorstep, they've been very mindful about how the program is evolving," said John R. Woolums, director of governmental relations of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

As students across the region returned to classes yesterday, many of them were becoming part of a charter school movement that has swept the nation in recent years but was slow in coming to Maryland.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pushed for charter school legislation two years ago, and a reluctant General Assembly went along despite the opposition of many local school boards and unions.

The idea of charter schools first developed in Michigan in the early 1990s. Now, more than 3,000 have opened nationwide, serving more than a million students.

Maryland's only contribution to this burgeoning movement had been Monocacy Valley Montessori in Frederick, which the school board there allowed in 2002 before the state law was passed.

But this fall, about 3,400 children will enroll in Maryland charter schools, said Patrick Crain, director of the State Department of Education's Office of School Innovation.

Among the new schools: KIPP, or Knowledge is Power Program, a San Francisco-based charter school organization that targets students in underprivileged areas. Parents and children at KIPP's two schools in Maryland sign agreements committing to the school's intense hours and heavy workload.

Yesterday, fifth-graders at KIPP Harbor Academy in Edgewater wrote sentences about what they had learned over the summer before filing past a large banner reading "Class of 2013" - their high school graduation year - to pick up breakfast. About 60 percent of the 75 children are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

KIPP Principal B. Jallon Brown answered her cell phone as she coordinated activities among the three classrooms at the Annapolis area school. Several children had overslept or didn't know where their bus stopped, so Brown sent emissaries out to collect them. Meanwhile, Brown and three teachers gathered the kids in one classroom to go over rules and expectations.

Five new charter schools are starting in Baltimore, and seven existing schools from the city's New Schools Initiative are converting to charters as well. Next week, Chesapeake Science Point, a charter dedicated to math, science and technology in Hanover, will join KIPP in Anne Arundel County. Applications for schools in Prince George's and Harford counties have been approved and they could open by next fall, Crain said.

Joni Berman, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, said that the wave represents a lot of pent-up interest.

"There are a lot of people who have been waiting for the law to be passed for a long time," she said.

And it won't be the last wave. Since last spring, Crain's office has provided more than $2 million in federal grants to organizations to help them prepare applications, plan their schools and support them when they open, he said. The director estimated about 30 could exist by next fall.

It wasn't easy for school organizers in Maryland. They and school system officials spent hours in meetings - and, for some Baltimore schools, in courtrooms - working out details about funding and other responsibilities for both parties.

Not every application in Maryland has met with success. Columbia Public Charter School, founded by a group of Howard County parents, is appealing its rejection to the State Board of Education today. The Howard school board rejected the lone charter request for the second time this year because of concerns over the school's curriculum, accountability and management.

Berman said that some of the motivation behind the desire for a charter school may be dissatisfaction with what's available.

Corey's former school "was a good school, but this will be more aggressive," Alice Neal of Annapolis said yesterday after dropping off the 10-year-old. She said she became interested in charter schools after reading about them nearly five years ago.

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