Charter growth

A skeptical public gradually embraces charter schools statewide

August 24, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,liz.bowie@baltsun.com

When 850,000 Maryland students head back to classrooms this week, a tiny but growing percentage will be in public schools that had only been imagined a decade ago. There's a primary school that lets children work at their own pace, an elementary school where 7-year-olds speak French a good portion of the day and a middle school where a sixth-grader can experience the outdoors.

In the first few years of Maryland's experiment with charter schools, Baltimore led the way with an explosion of new schools of all varieties. More slowly and cautiously, county districts are following the city's lead, allowing more of these publicly funded and privately operated schools to open as alternatives to the traditional public-school education.

Baltimore County's first charter school expects to open Tuesday in the Woodlawn area, and charters already operate in Harford, Frederick, St. Mary's and Anne Arundel counties. The newest additions this week will bring the statewide total to 34 schools and nearly 8,000 students.

FOR THE RECORD - The name of a new charter school in Baltimore was incorrectly reported in an article in Sunday's edition. The correct name is Afya Public Charter School.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

Yet charters still face hurdles in getting started - from the local school officials who view them as competition to the pressure of construction costs. Of the 20 charter applications received statewide last school year, 16 were denied.

While some advocates would like to make the state more friendly to the charter movement, others say Maryland's current structure ensures rigorous oversight of new schools.

"I think [the law] was not universally applauded. So I think school systems have not, with the exception of Baltimore City, been particularly proponents," said state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. But today, she said, she believes districts have generally approved new charters when the applications were sound.

Besides charters, the state has a growing number of innovative public schools. The state's first public boarding school, called the SEED School, opens tomorrow for at-risk students from around the state; they will spend five days a week there and go home on weekends. SEED, which is operated by a private foundation, has raised tens of millions to renovate an old high school in Baltimore and build dormitories.

In addition, the city has allowed four groups to open four small high schools called innovation schools. This year, the city will experiment with five new transformation schools that combine middle and high school grades, an unusual configuration.

Despite the burst of new schools, Maryland came late to the charter movement, passing its law in 2003, long after charters had proliferated elsewhere. That law was seen as weak by advocates because oversight of charters was given to local school boards, who are traditionally skeptical. Years later, Maryland charters educate less than 1 percent of all students.

Still, charters have been very popular among parents - some schools have twice as many applicants as seats and most hold lotteries for admission. Meanwhile, the original fear that charters would be created to serve primarily a white, more affluent group of students has not materialized. According to State Department of Education statistics, nearly 80 percent of students are African-American, and significant numbers are poor.

"Charters are out there to provide innovations and sometimes traditional public schools are not the answer for every child," said David Miller, the director of the Maryland Charter School Network.

While the charters range from vocational to college prep, they share one characteristic: All are much smaller than the average school. The largest, Hampstead Hill Academy, has 500 students.

The change in Baltimore has been the most dramatic. Hungry for an alternative to its troubled neighborhood schools, groups of parents have come together in different areas of the city to start new schools. Although the city school board was at first skeptical that the movement would create a dual school system with charters filled with higher-income students, that concern has been unfounded.

The city has moved from a traditional public school district with a central bureaucracy a decade ago, to a system with more than 10 percent of students attending charters or alternative schools.

Because so many of Maryland's charter schools opened relatively recently, advocates say it is difficult to tell how many will be successful. But last school year, only about half of the schools had test scores that met the federal standards.

"It is mixed," Grasmick said. "Some of them have done extremely well, and some are struggling."

But charter advocates say the state's charters have provided more choice to families looking for an alternative to the standard curriculum. The four new charters include the Baltimore County and statewide SEED schools, as well as a Montessori school in the city's Station North neighborhood and ASYA Charter School in Belair Edison.

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