Charter schools struggle to survive

Problems with locations, administrators, highlight challenges to starting an institution

Missteps reveal challenges to starting a charter school


Cori Dykman's story is typical of many parents whose children attend charter schools.

Her math-whiz son, 11-year-old Andrew, wasn't being challenged at his elementary school. So she skipped Andrew a grade and, taking a leap of faith, enrolled him at a new charter school, Chesapeake Science Point in Hanover.

Dykman and other parents said they saw Chesapeake Science Point - a school that focuses on math, science and technology, and is one of 14 charters that opened in Maryland last fall - as a promising alternative to traditional public schools. They said they saw the school as a place where high-achieving students could thrive and those who love math and science would be challenged.

Seven months later, parents are waiting to learn whether the school will close.

County school officials have removed the top two administrators, reassigned three teachers and completed an investigation of management and operating procedures.

"There are some core issues that really are fundamental to running a school that really need to be followed," said Pat Crain, school innovations director for the Maryland Department of Education.

The problems at Chesapeake Science Point involve basic operational areas such as "teacher quality, classroom instruction, adherence to special education policies and procedures," Crain said.

Some observers say Chesapeake Science Point's stumbles illustrate the pitfalls of starting a charter school from scratch and might point to the need for changes in state law and more scrutiny of applications.

Charter school advocates said the situation shows the need for greater autonomy, public funding of building needs and more guidance for those starting charters.

"It is really hard to run schools and to open schools. No doubt, there are some people who underestimated it," said Andrew Rotherham, co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank.

Financial planning

A problem area for many charter school organizers is financial planning and budgeting, he said. A recent audit of Chesapeake Science Point by the county school system uncovered errors in financial reporting and projected that the charter would end its first year in the red.

The school's founders dispute the audit's findings and expect to have a surplus of more than $30,000.

Charter schools - which are publicly funded but have greater freedom in curriculum and policies - began popping up around the country in 1992. About 3,600 are in operation, with more than a million students enrolled, according to the Center for Educational Reform, a national advocacy group that supports charters.

More than 400 charters have closed in recent years, most of them because of financial difficulties or management issues, according to a report by the group.

Observers agree that starting a school is no small task.

"It's extremely difficult. It doesn't matter whether the group are educators, come from a business background or are parents," said Joni Berman, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, a nonprofit that lends technical assistance to potential charters.

Maryland passed its charter school law in 2003, and about 3,300 Maryland students attend 15 charter schools, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. There are 12 charter schools in Baltimore, two in Anne Arundel County and one in Frederick. The 10 charters approved for next year include four in Baltimore, five in Prince George's County and one in Harford County.

Parents, educators or nonprofit groups can start charter schools, and individual school systems set their own criteria - within state guidelines - for charter approval. But only local school boards can approve charter school applications, though the state Department of Education hears appeals of denials.

Many obstacles

Chesapeake Science Point has faced obstacles since before it opened last fall.

Al Aksakalli, one of the founders of Chesapeake Science Point, said his board thought it had a location for its school last summer, but when county regulations changed and made that site unsuitable, the school's founders had to scramble to find a new site.

"People were skeptical. When we were recruiting, people were asking, `Where is the school located?' We didn't even know. It made it impossible to find a qualified candidate" to run the school, Aksakalli said.

Weeks before the school was scheduled to open and with no director, the school's founding board asked Jon Omural, then an insurance company manager and a member of the nonprofit's board, to fill the position.

But Omural does not hold the proper state certifications to be a principal. In February, he was removed from the school by county school officials after personnel complaints and a union grievance were lodged against him. Omural, who remains on paid administrative leave, has declined to comment.

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