System's First Charter School Draws Out Critics

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

For more than three years, parents worked with elected officials to bring St. Mary's County its first charter school. And during that time, another group of parents and elected officials questioned why the county needs a charter school.

Nearly all of the publicly funded, privately operated charter schools in Maryland have opened in low-performing school systems. St. Mary's, a fast-growing but still relatively rural county, has High School Assessment and Maryland School Assessment scores that rank among the best half-dozen in the state.

Two-thirds of the state's 23 charter schools are in Baltimore, where test scores are the worst in Maryland. Another three are in Prince George's County, which joined Baltimore and Wicomico County in 2006 as the only school systems to fail to meet adequate yearly progress requirements, which measure schools' improvement.

But supporters of the Chesapeake Public Charter School, which will open in the fall, say even the best test scores can belie schools that are not serving all children well, and that parents deserve a choice of where to educate their children.

"You know, this charter school might be easier if we had a failing school system," said William M. Mattingly, vice chairman of the county school board. "People can't say, 'They're doing this because the rest of their schools aren't worth a darn.' "

The Chesapeake school will join two in Anne Arundel County and one each in Frederick and Harford counties as the only charter schools in systems whose test scores meet or beat Maryland averages. Instead of providing parents with an option for their children to escape a failing school, organizers say, the charter school will enhance the county system by offering a different style of teaching. Although charter schools operate through public school systems, they are free from many of the curricular requirements governing traditional schools.

Founders of the school said its small size will allow teachers to create individual lesson plans for students, who will be grouped into multi-age classrooms of about 17 children. Classroom subjects will include technology, foreign languages, organic gardening and environmental issues surrounding the nearby Chesapeake Bay.

"Choice is important, and having choices in your educational opportunities should not be just for people who have the financial ability to pay for private schools," said Kate Sullivan, a founding member of the volunteer group that worked to create the school. "We have a good school system, yes, but it's still missing some children, and we're trying to get at those."

The idea of competition from charter schools within public school systems has its detractors. Opponents of the school say it is unnecessary and comes at the expense of other projects for the system's 16,700 students. Some parents have asked why the school board is dedicating its time to creating a school when the existing school system is within striking distance of becoming the best in the state.

Some members of the five-person school board have acknowledged these concerns, but they say their hands are tied because state law is designed to promote the creation of charter schools.

"This is a state mandate, so we don't have all that much choice in the matter," said Cathy Allen, a member of the board who has become a lead critic of the Chesapeake school and the state law governing charters. "Sometimes I think that people who don't have experience with the school system may miss some of the programs offered and the environmental focus of several schools."

Allen said she does not object to all charter schools but believes they need not be an urgent priority in St. Mary's County, where school officials have ambitious plans for existing schools. Instead, officials have spent dozens of hours in the past several months discussing the Chesapeake school. Charter schools, she said, are often designed by people who have a "marvelous dream" but lack the experience to implement them well.

Charter school advocates counter that board members do not know what is best for every child. Organizers of the St. Mary's school point to the 261 families who entered a lottery for the school's 160 spots as evidence that a need had gone unfulfilled.

Joni Berman, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, which offers support services for charters, said her son's experience in Howard County public schools fueled her desire to help create alternative schools. He had been labeled gifted and talented in elementary school, Berman said, but earned a C average in high school by doing only as much work as necessary to pass.

"He could have earned a free ride academically or athletically or musically in college," Berman said of the now-25-year-old. "Unfortunately, that was not the path he took, and he just skated by."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company