Charter school community stunned by danger of closing

Only one school would fail to get new contract

February 08, 2010|By John-John Williams IV | john-john.williams@baltsun.com

The Dr. Rayner Browne School community is still trying to comprehend that its beloved school is in danger of losing its charter school status - and the support system that accompanies that distinction.

The tiny school nestled in a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood once referred to as "Zombietown" because of the vast number of vacant homes, is considered a bright spot amid the conditions surrounding the campus.

"We are stunned," said Gregory Branch, whose grandson attends the school. "We've made a lot of advancements - maybe not to the level that [city schools CEO Andrés Alonso] would like."

Rayner Browne would be the lone charter school not to be issued a contract renewal under Alonso's proposal, which was unveiled during last month's school board meeting.

Six schools - City Springs, Collington Square, Coppin Academy, Baltimore International Academy, Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy and Inner Harbor East Academy for Young Scholars - would be given two-year extensions. Wolfe Street Academy, Southwest Baltimore Charter School and Independence School received the highest recommendation, which would be a five-year contract.

At the same meeting, Alonso presented recommendations to close or revamp 12 schools that are among the lowest-performing in the city. The middle schools that would close under the proposal are Chinquapin, Diggs-Johnson, West Baltimore and Winston; other schools would move into most of those buildings.

The proposals must be approved by the school board.

Esther Wallace, principal at Diggs-Johnson, said she has been flooded with questions from parents and students about the reasons that led to Alonso's recommendation to close the school and move a charter school into the building. Alonso's decision on Diggs-Johnson was prompted in large part because of the school's shrinking enrollment, according to Wallace.

"In a sense, parents have spoken," said Wallace, who has been at the school for two years. The school had 323 students last year; enrollment is projected for 187 in the fall. "Those parents who have taken their children and placed them in other settings have spoken. They want options for their children."

Wallace did not take Alonso's recommendation as a slight or a negative reflection on the school.

"The wonderful thing through this process has been the affirmation we have received," she said. "They have affirmed me and the staff so much. People - specifically leadership - recognizes that we are on the right track, and we are doing right by kids."

The attitude at Rayner Browne, which became a charter two years ago, is less upbeat. The school did not receive a recommendation for renewal in part because all student subgroups saw a decrease in test scores in mathematics for the past two years. In reading, three of the four student subgroups experienced drops in test scores.

If the board follows Alonso's recommendation and votes not to renew its contract, Rayner Browne will be in danger of closing or reverting to a traditional school. If the school loses its charter status, then it will no longer receive some of the additional support afforded charter schools, such as opportunities for professional development, according to Rayner Browne staff.

Alonso made his decision based on a number of factors, including success of students; fiscal soundness and governance; level of compliance; and a mix of other quantitative and qualitative data.

A number of students, staff and parents from the charter schools addressed the board recently, making individual pleas to keep their schools open, as was the case with Rayner Browne, or to approve a five-year contract, as was the case with City Springs. Rayner Browne staff and parents are asking Alonso for a two-year contract extension.

"I was really shocked by the decision," said Yolanda Whitaker-Cherry, who has two children attending Rayner Browne.

"It takes time for a transition," Whitaker-Cherry said. "We've only been a charter for two years."

Tiffani Lombardi, a Reading First instructional support teacher at the school, also spoke to the board. She presented data and anecdotes about the progress that the school has made.

Lombardi, whose two children attend Rayner Browne, worries that without charter status, important programs will not receive sufficient attention.

For example, because the school has charter status, it falls under the supervision of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, a local nonprofit group that oversees a cluster of charter schools in the city. The project provides each charter school with teacher development and strategies to accomplish academic success, according to Lombardi. Having the support of the organization has increased test scores at the school, she said, adding that she believes it will make adequate yearly progress this year.

The last time Rayner Browne met Maryland's Average Yearly Progress targets was four years ago, when it was still an elementary school; it added middle-school grades four years ago to combat shrinking enrollment.

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