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Growing Pains May Kill Charter School

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

One of Anne Arundel County's two public charter schools is shutting down because it has been unable to find a new location to house its growing program.

Officials of the Knowledge Is Power Program, which operates the KIPP Harbor Academy in Edgewater and 51 others across the country, said it is the first time they have been forced to close because they were unable to secure a space to lease.

"In other communities, we're seeing people clamoring for KIPP, but here, we looked at several locations, and some made it clear we're not welcome," said Steve Mancini, a KIPP spokesman.

The decision to close the school, which enrolls 107 fifth- and sixth-graders, angered teachers, local minority activists and parents who suddenly find themselves scrambling to find other placements for their children.

The school, which had leased four classrooms on the campus of Sojourner Douglass College in Edgewater, opened in 2005 with 60 fifth-graders. The sixth grade was added this year, and 86 more students were scheduled to enroll in the fall.

"No one here can afford to put their kids into private schools, and by now all the scholarships and grants are already gone," said Velma Herndon, a parent. "And the public schools, we tried them. It's different."

Nationally, the KIPP program focuses on helping minority and low-income students. Ninety percent of the students at the Edgewater school are African American, and 65 percent are eligible to receive free or reduced-priced meals.

"It just floored me that the school could close for lack of a location, especially when people are trying so hard to improve education of African American families," said Gerald Stansbury, past president of the local NAACP chapter. "The politicians in the county can find a location for anything if they really wanted to. We should have made every effort for a school like this."

In recent months, parents and school leaders had criticized the county's public school leaders for refusing to allow KIPP to lease space in the largely vacant Annapolis Middle School.

In a series of impassioned meetings with the county school board, parents and KIPP staffers pleaded with the school board to let them rent at the middle school, which has the capacity for more than 1,400 students but has more than 900 vacant seats.

County school administrators, however, said that some of the space is being used by resources teachers and other programs. Administrators also said they worried that an International Baccalaureate program set to debut next year would draw more middle-schoolers to Annapolis Middle. And with renovations at other city schools planned, the space might be needed to temporarily house students.

"We did everything we could to find them adequate space," said county schools spokeswoman Maneka Wade. "We're definitely sorry to hear the school has decided to close. And we would welcome teachers and students back to public schools."

The Harbor Academy was modeled after other KIPP programs, which typically start out small and are expanded with the addition of students and grade levels. The school was set to begin a seventh grade in the fall but did not have the space at Sojourner-Douglass, which it leased for $120,000 a year. Rather than disrupt the program by losing the rising seventh-graders and holding the school to the fifth and sixth grades, the school decided to close.

KIPP leaders explored 25 sites, including vacant commercial buildings and churches. Some did not have enough space. Others shunned their proposals or were too expensive.

The space at the middle school or the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in downtown Annapolis were the most promising. But officials at both locations turned down the school, which was prepared to spend $100,000 and $125,000 annually to lease the respective sites.

KIPP officials announced the closure yesterday but said the school's board will formalize the decision with a vote Monday.

Meanwhile, some are holding out hope that the school will be able to remain open.

"It's very unlikely, but we're exploring every option until the vote on Monday," Mancini said.

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