Montgomery County takes baby steps toward charter schools

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010

Although charter schools have become firmly established in the District's education world, stepping over to Montgomery County means entering a charter desert. No such schools operate there, but this year, two groups aim to change that.

They filed applications with the Montgomery County Board of Education, which has the power to deny the requests and would oversee the schools if they are approved. The Community Montessori School would be an elementary school for low-income students run by Crossway Community, a nonprofit group in Kensington. Global Gardens Public Charter School would operate an elementary International Baccalaureate program.

School officials, who will decide on the applications in June, say they're looking for something that would complement what public schools offer.

"A charter school should offer something unique, something different than what we offer in the Montgomery public schools," Board of Education President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) said.

Charter schools are publicly funded and are subject to the same accountability standards as public schools. But they are given wide latitude in how they go about meeting those standards. They have to accept all comers, unlike special programs within public schools that require competitive applications.

While Montgomery makes baby steps toward its first charter school, the District is long beyond that hesitation.

About 38 percent of the city's public school students attend charter schools, and four schools were approved this month, which will bring the total to more than 60. Maryland's largest concentration of charter schools is in Baltimore. There are four in Prince George's County, with two more slated to open next year. St. Mary's County has one.

Charter school advocates say that Maryland has lagged in opening the schools because state laws favor the status quo. In the District, a board that is independent from the regular D.C. public schools is in charge of approving and overseeing charter schools.

Maryland applicants, by contrast, must gain approval from their local school boards, which also oversee the regular public schools and are likely to view charter schools as a drain of resources. Applicants who are denied can appeal to the state board of education, which several schools in Prince George's did.

Representatives of the two potential charter schools in Montgomery are cautious about criticizing the school system, framing their proposals as complementing public schools not competing with them.

"We think that they're a world-class school system and they're doing a fantastic job," said Kathleen Guinan, head of Crossway Community. "This would just be another alternative for children to have additional wraparound services, really focusing on economically disadvantaged students."

Crossway Community, which has been in Kensington for 20 years, operates a preschool Montessori program and a residential program for single mothers and their children. As research has shown, the longer those programs continue, the greater the benefit for low-income children, Guinan said. That made adding an elementary school more attractive.

"We've talked about it for many, many years," she said.

The other proposal, Global Gardens, is being spearheaded by two Montgomery educators who want a school with small class sizes and an IB curriculum, which emphasizes cross-cultural connections. They said that coming up with an alternative to Montgomery's well-regarded public schools is more difficult than it would be in the District, which has many struggling schools.

"It's a whole different flavor to trying to start a charter school in Montgomery County," Global Garden President Janet Sluzenski said.

Charter advocates see opportunities even in Montgomery.

"Who has the hubris to say that there's nothing that can be improved about a school system?" said David Borinsky, president of the Maryland Charter School Network.

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