KIPP school to stay open

Decision by board of Edgewater facility a stunning reversal

June 28, 2007|By Ruma Kumar and Nia-Malika Henderson | Ruma Kumar and Nia-Malika Henderson,SUN REPORTERS

A week after announcing that an Edgewater charter school would be shuttered, its divided leadership last night formally voted for the school to remain open in a stunning turnaround.

But the 3-2 vote by the board of KIPP Harbor Academy left more questions than answers: Where the school would operate? Who would be its principal? And who would staff it since 10 of the 12 teachers have found new jobs?

"We have two teachers and one staff person. ... We're in a very difficult position," said Steve Mancini, a spokesman for the acclaimed Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP.

The decision to stay open, which came over the objections of Principal Jallon Brown, appears to keep the Harbor Academy from becoming the first among 52 KIPP schools to close because of lack of space.

The proposal still on the table calls for placing burgeoning enrollment near the school's current home at Sojourner Douglass College in three portable classrooms, without a gym, cafeteria or bathrooms.

School officials earlier yesterday rejected the plan offered by Anne Arundel County school and government leaders as untenable, with Mancini calling it a "cynical ploy" to garner publicity.

The stance by the school - which had dismissed 25 other sites during a two-year hunt - left school and county leaders grumbling privately that KIPP was being inflexible.

Last night, a representative for County Executive John R. Leopold offered $300,000 to pay for the charter school's portables at nearby Central Elementary School.

"It provides an alternative for education excellence that is important to keep alive," said Leopold, who as a delegate sponsored the legislation allowing charter schools in Maryland.

KIPP, a college preparatory program, is nationally recognized for raising test performance among low-income and minority middle-schoolers. Its innovative approach includes placing teachers on call until 9 p.m. weekdays for homework help, longer school days, 11-month school years and twice-a-month Saturday classes.

The 60 fifth-graders who entered Harbor Academy in 2005 were reading and doing math three grade levels lower than where they should have been. But newly released state test scores showed that 7 out of 10 of those students passed the state math test, and 60 percent were reading at or above their grade level.

To keep up with the national model that calls for adding a grade a year until it has fifth through eighth grades, KIPP asked the county school board in April to lease space at Annapolis Middle School.

It has more than 900 empty seats, while KIPP needed to house 120 fifth- and sixth-graders and the expected incoming seventh-grade class of nearly 90.

The school board, however, said it needed the classrooms at Annapolis Middle for new programs and overflow space during future renovations of nearby schools.

KIPP maintained its search, pleading with churches and shopping centers, without success. Discouraged, it sent to parents a note June 20 abruptly announcing the school's immediate closure. That prompted panic - and anger - among parents and the staff.

"If this was over a bunch of white middle-class children, I guarantee you we wouldn't be facing this," said Kate Finley, a former teacher who has accepted a new job with a KIPP school in Washington. "My leaving had nothing to do with the parents, teachers or kids at Harbor Academy. I couldn't stay and work for a district that would treat its own staff and teachers this way."

After the announcement, school and government leaders held a series of 11th-hour talks in an effort to keep the school open.

County school officials said they have been working to secure $250,000 to help pay for the portables, which they said they first offered in April.

Yesterday afternoon, schools spokesman Bob Mosier insisted, "We did everything we could."

KIPP officials denied that, saying no formal proposal had been made to them.

Last night, parents made impassioned pleas to the board to be more flexible but found an unlikely opponent in Brown, the school leader and founder. She lobbied heavily to close the school, saying she had virtually no staff and felt that the school was not welcome in the community.

She cast one of the two votes to shut down the Harbor Academy but declined comment after the meeting.

Parents and other observers were left bewildered after nearly two hours of emotional testimony and confusion on the board about what it should do.

"I don't think people walked away with a clear sense that an action plan had been developed," said Carl Snowden, a community leader. "The whole process was convoluted. It took a long time to get to the point of the vote, and people came there looking for a more resolute decision than what they got." ruma.kumar@baltsun.com nia.henderson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Sharahn Boykin contributed to this article.

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