At least two groups, and possibly three, remain on schedule to open the first charter schools in Anne Arundel County next fall.
One applicant is a chain of 38 charter schools based in San Francisco. Another wants to bring a math-science program to Glen Burnie. A third group, still completing its application, would dispense character education to low-income children in Annapolis.
School board members can't predict how many will make the cut. All of the applicants say they intend to open next fall. How many prevail may depend on such intricacies as hiring staff and finding suitable classroom space; none of the three groups has settled on a campus site. One factor they needn't fear is the support of the county superintendent. Eric J. Smith has declared his support for charter schools.
"A lot of it depends on them being able to secure usable space, the kind of space that would accommodate a school," said board member Eugene Peterson. "I would anticipate that one or two would be ready to do it."
Maryland has just one charter school operating now, in Frederick County. The number will soon rise. Roughly 50 organizations statewide are working on charter-school applications, according to state charter-school officials. Some are public schools seeking conversion into charter schools, a process that is far simpler than starting from scratch.
The charter-school movement began in Minnesota in 1991 as a way for public schools to operate outside the school-district bureaucracy. Maryland arrived "very late in the game," said Joni Berman of the Maryland Charter School Network, because the state lacked a law to support charter-school applicants. That law arrived in 2003, setting up an appeal process for charter applicants denied by the local school board.
The Baltimore city school board has conditionally approved 10 charter schools to open in fall 2005; they include seven existing public schools that are converting to charters and may attain that status by spring, Berman said. Three groups have applied in Harford County, and one each in St. Mary's, Howard, Dorchester and Wicomico. The Prince George's school board has denied one of its four applications, she said. If approved, charter applicants still face two formidable obstacles if they wish to open in the fall: money and classroom space.
Two Anne Arundel groups submitted charter-school applications Nov. 1, opening a 120-day window for the local school board to make a decision. A third operator plans to submit an application at the start of January.
The most polished of the three is the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a national nonprofit group founded by two Ivy League graduates fresh from the Teach For America program. They're known for opening charter schools in low-income areas and raising test scores dramatically by extending the school day to 8 1/2 or 9 1/2 hours, requiring periodic Saturday study and three-week summer sessions.
KIPP schools in the District and Baltimore -- the latter is about to convert to a charter -- boast some of the highest standardized test scores in either jurisdiction after just a few years in business.
"I think what makes KIPP unique is that you have leaders who have come before, and who have experienced success in putting [young] people on the path to college," said Steve Mancini, spokesman for the San Francisco organization.
If approved by the school board, KIPP Harbor Academy would open in Annapolis in July to serve a fifth-grade population of 80 children. The school would add another 80 students each year, up to a top enrollment of 320 in grades 5 through 8. Classes would go from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, with four-hour Saturday sessions twice a month. Mancini said KIPP will advertise in mailings to some low-income families in Annapolis.
All KIPP teachers carry cellular phones and students may call them at any hour for help.
The Anne Arundel superintendent and teacher union leaders have already toured the KIPP school in Baltimore, Mancini said.