Hairston, Charter School Confer On 'Growing Pains'

August 08, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,

In an effort to resolve what he and others have described as "growing pains," Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston met Friday with the leadership of the national nonprofit behind the district's first public charter school.

Hairston sought the meeting with Virginia-based Imagine Schools to clarify several issues that emerged in the first year at the Woodlawn-area charter, which did not make adequate yearly progress this year. County and charter school officials have acknowledged challenges in establishing how Imagine Discovery fits in the system and how the district can provide support to a school it authorizes but doesn't control.

"We have talked through a lot of issues that were just shrouded in misinterpretation and a lot of misunderstanding," said Hairston, adding that the two-hour discussion was very productive. "We both agree on holding ourselves accountable for the performance of the school. ... We're together in making sure that future conversations and interactions with personnel are consistent with our overall objectives."

The charter opened last year with kindergarten through fourth grades and will add grade five this fall as part of a plan to expand to eighth grade.

In a recent presentation and report, district officials detailed problems in working with and supporting the charter's different, art-infused curriculum - and in using county curriculum aids, as well as assessments to track student progress.

"The major challenge that we face is a lack of alignment of the charter school" in its testing efforts and the district's ability to monitor student learning and improve achievement, Manuel B. Rodriguez, the southwest-area assistant superintendent, told the school board last month. "The implementation of the academic program at the charter school does not reflect the standards that we find in other [county] elementary schools."

Rodriguez cited the school's administration of periodic county skills tests, considered "predictors of performance" on the Maryland School Assessments, as an example. While Imagine students took reading benchmarks, he said, they did not do so for math, and took those for science and social studies after state testing.

The presentation sparked a lengthy discussion among board members, some expressing concerns about the charter and the district's ultimate responsibility for its students - and others urging patience with the school.

Hairston said Friday that charter school officials agreed to look for ways to more closely align with the county and to administer district benchmarks. Both sides plan periodic meetings "just to make sure we're on course, and we're honoring our agreement with each other," he added.

"There's still a clear understanding that they are a charter school, and they have a different approach to educating children than a public-school setting," Hairston said. But both the district and Imagine also understand "that at the end of the day, we must demonstrate that we have an effectiveness in educating children."

Pat Crain, Imagine's Maryland regional director, and Principal Sharon Harris said they think the past year went well, but add that more work lies ahead.

"We have a lot of room to grow, and we had a lot of time this summer to look at where we need to grow," Harris said.

The school did not make adequate yearly progress this year because it failed to meet targets for special-education students - by one student in math, Crain said. Overall, 64.5 percent of third-graders passed the MSA reading and math tests, while 86.4 and 84.1 percent of fourth-graders passed in math and reading, respectively.

Based on Imagine's testing at the beginning and end of the year, students on average "grew more than a year over the course of the last school year," Crain said, adding that pre-test results indicated many started below grade level.

"I don't think anybody's completely satisfied with the results," Crain said. Still, "in the first year of a school, considering all these new components, I think we have to be pretty pleased with that as a starting point."

Imagine Discovery School

Location: Woodlawn, Baltimore County

Year opened: 2008

Number of students: about 550 expected for 2009-2010

Grades: opened with K-4; will expand to fifth grade this fall

Parent company: Imagine Schools, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Va.

Number of Imagine schools in the nation: more than 70

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