Prince George’s charter plans move to new location, sparks complaints from parents

Rhonda Stewart has felt a mix of emotions in the weeks since her daughter was accepted by what she considers one of the top charter school programs in Prince George’s County.

First, she was elated by the lottery’s outcome. Then, two weeks ago, she was disappointed to learn that the new campus would not open near FedEx Field in Largo, as promised. Now she is appalled, Stewart said, after seeing the Forrestville building where Chesapeake Math and IT (CMIT) Academy wants her child to go to school.

“When I pulled up, there was a dumpster overflowing with garbage, the lawn wasn’t maintained and there were police cars going around the facility,” Stewart said. “We were told that there is mildew on the walls and the water is undrinkable.”

Stewart is part of a group of parents who have raised questions with CMIT and the school system about the relocation of the new campus to what they consider an unsafe neighborhood and the timing and lack of parent involvement in the decision.

“I just don’t feel like they have our children’s best interest at heart,” said Stewart, whose daughter will be a seventh-grader in the fall.

Chesapeake opened its first charter school in Prince George’s in 2011. Last year, the Board of Education approved contracts that allow Chesapeake to expand operations, adding grades to its location in Laurel and opening a campus for sixth- and seventh-graders in the southern part of the county.

Sara Blair, a representative of Chesapeake Lighthouse Foundation, the parent organization, said Berkshire Elementary, a vacant county school, is the best option for CMIT Academy at this time. No other buildings are being considered, she said.

“Due to structural issues and cost increases, we had to choose another location,” Blair said in an e-mail. “Berkshire was an empty Prince George’s County School. . . . It is our only option to bypass permits and be able to open the school on time.”

This is not the first time a charter school operator has been criticized for considering a move to Berkshire.

About a month ago, parents complained to the Board of Education after they learned that Imagine Leeland, a charter school operated by Imagine Foundation, planned to move from Upper Marlboro to Berkshire. The board delayed a vote on the lease, and Imagine decided to stay put and renegotiate its lease at its current location.

Shauna Battle, an attorney for the school system, said Wednesday that schools chief Kevin Maxwell has not made a recommendation about CMIT Academy’s leasing Berkshire and that the board has not considered a lease agreement. She said the charter operator asked whether space was available after running into problems with the prospective landlord in Largo.

“We said, ‘You need to engage your parents,’ ” Battle said, noting the problems that Imagine Leeland faced. “They did a survey and have had two parent meetings. . . . They are trying to come up with a solution.’’

“I don’t feel like the charter or school system did anything underhanded,” Battle said. “We are trying to work with the charter. We would look worse if we didn’t offer them an empty building.”

Blair said Chesapeake sent a formal request to the school board Wednesday and expects the board to consider a lease agreement with the charter at its May 22 meeting.

Kekey Johnson, a parent from Bowie, said CMIT essentially told parents “take it or leave it. . . . There was no collaboration.”

Parents said the situation with CMIT hurts a school district such as Prince George’s, which is trying to rebuild trust with the community and increase the number of middle-class families that enroll children in public schools.

Many described the relocation plan by CMIT as a “bait-and-switch,” saying they were told about the decision to move the charter to Forrestville after the lottery process was finished.

Some parents said they had been on waiting lists for private schools but chose the charter instead. Now the private school seats are no longer an option.

The parents said if they choose not to send their children to CMIT Academy, they will have to send their children to neighborhood schools, which, they said, do not offer the same rigorous curriculum.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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