KIPP asks to get room to grow

Rebuffed by board, charter school seeks help from lawmakers

April 20, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

After being rebuffed by the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, the principal of an Edgewater charter school is planning to appeal to local lawmakers to help the school find room to expand.

The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Harbor Academy, which now has 120 fifth- and sixth-graders inside Sojourner-Douglass College on Old Solomons Island Road is negotiating with Mount Moriah AME Church in Annapolis to build on the church's grounds, Principal Jallon Brown said.

In the meantime, the school had hoped to move into Annapolis Middle School, which is two-thirds vacant, to keep to its plan to add a seventh grade in the fall and an eighth grade in 2008.

After a dozen emotional, often tear-filled pleas from parents and students on Wednesday night, however, school board members said Annapolis Middle's space is reserved for other programs and that they had done all they could to help the fledgling year-round school.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said that the school board has been trying to find room for KIPP Harbor Academy to no avail. He suggested that KIPP look to private benefactors.

"We would be happy if others would step forward," Maxwell said.

School board President Eugene Peterson advised the school to enlist the help of County Executive John R. Leopold, a charter school champion.

The Leopold administration, however, reacted guardedly to Peterson's comments.

"The county executive was never informed by any of the school board members or from the superintendent of public schools that this was an issue," said Rhonda Wardlaw, a spokeswoman for Leopold. "Mr. Peterson was the first we had heard from the school board on the issue."

Andy Smarick, vice president of the board of directors for KIPP Harbor Academy, said yesterday that KIPP would continue to try to work with the county school board, but also would look for support from local and state government officials.

KIPP Harbor Academy is part of a national network of more than 38 college-preparatory schools designed to serve inner-city and low-income areas. Teachers are on call until 9 p.m. weekdays for homework help. Students attend class from 7:30 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. Twice a month, they attend Saturday classes. Students also have required extracurricular activities, character training and summer school.

One of two charter schools in the county, KIPP Harbor Academy opened in the college's new building in 2005 with a fifth-grade class. The goal was to have grades five through eight established by 2009, by adding one grade a year, according to the school's Web site.

The school would like to have 30,000 square feet to accommodate its future expansion, said Carmen Maldonado, the real estate manager for the KIPP Foundation office in New York City.

Brown said the school had looked at all kinds of facilities to allow the expansion, but they were either too expensive or did not have enough room.

She and nearly 100 parents and students came to the board's Wednesday night meeting to put what Brown called "a human face" on the debate. Holding signs that read, "We need KIPP" and "KIPP is my future," students and parents testified about the importance of the school.

Heather Trotman of Pasadena said she credits KIPP with helping her daughter, Camry Dawson, grasp reading and writing, despite her attention deficit disorder.

"For the first time in a long time, she was excited to go to school," Trotman said, breaking down during her testimony. "If my daughter has to go back to a regular school, I would have to quit my job and teach her myself at home."

Chardonnay Hall, a sixth-grader at KIPP Harbor Academy, said she was often sent to the office at her former school. At KIPP, she has learned discipline and made the honor roll, she said.

KIPP Harbor Academy also cited a county school utilization report that showed that Annapolis Middle School had 577 students enrolled as of August and a capacity for 1,500 students. KIPP Harbor Academy will have 180 students in the fall.

Peterson told parents at the meeting that it was a misconception that Annapolis Middle School had empty classrooms. Those rooms are used by resource groups, such as the Children's Guild, which helps struggling students. Maxwell said the school system needed available space in Annapolis Middle to accommodate other schools' future construction plans.

"How often are those resource teachers there?" Smarick asked yesterday.

The school's growing pains are beginning to wear on some parents. Children with behavioral problems are placed in the same classrooms as other students and teachers there are forced to spend too much time on discipline, short-changing instruction time for other students, said Robbie Wyatt, president of the KIPP Parent Teacher Organization.

Wyatt is weighing whether to let her 11-year-old son, Kenneth, return next fall.

"I just think at this point ... they are taking on a little more than they can handle," Wyatt said.

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