When will Montgomery County learn to embrace charter schools?

By Jeanne Allen
Sunday, July 18, 2010

When I arrived at the Crossways Community in Kensington, I felt as if I had discovered a little-known gem.

Nestled on several acres behind an older neighborhood is an integrated learning environment that spans generations. It's a place families can go to become healthy, single mothers can go to reshape their lives and become effective parents, children from all backgrounds can join in a diverse Montessori community and school, and people of all races and ethnicities can advance their education, language skills and more.

It is a place where one woman's enrollment in the family education program while her daughter attended the early education program yielded her child a full ride to the private Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart and later a Posse Scholarship to Grinnell College in Iowa.

"When they see their children really improving, they start seeing a future for themselves," Crossways President Kathleen Guinan told me.

As one of the members of the local Chamber of Commerce meeting there that day pointed out, an integrated learning community like Crossways is a K through K environment -- kindergarten through Kiwanis. But recently this community was denied the ability to thrive in a new way when its plan for a public charter school was denied.

Nothing builds a community better than quality education, and so Crossways sought to build a new school as a continuation of its successful programs. The plan draws on the methods of Montessori philosophy -- from growing live gardens to learning math -- and expertly addresses the academic and social foundations of effective schooling models.

I left scratching my head: I found it unfathomable that the Montgomery County school system in June rejected the application by Crossways to start a public charter school for grades K-6 on the same campus, with the same proven programs.

Never mind that the nearby Rock View Elementary School is oversubscribed by more than 200 children, or that multiple-income families flock to the Crossways preschool Montessori program. Parents want more options for personalized education for their children.

The fact that such busy, accomplished, successful people would offer to start another public school is something we should encourage, not hinder. Instead, Superintendent Jerry Weast signed off on a rejection that said there was no facilities plan, when a multipage professional architect's plan and budget accompanied the application. The rejection questioned Crossways' ability to handle accounting matters, despite a 20-year track record of clean audits of multiple programs. The rejection pondered how the proposed charter would handle transportation and food service, even though Crossways' food service is highly regarded and the application made both issues clear. As it did in rejecting the Jaime Escalante Charter School proposed by a veteran Whitman High School teacher in 2003, the system again failed to demonstrate competency in reviewing charter applications.

Crossways appealed the decision to the Maryland State Board of Education. If successful, Crossways would be the first charter school in Montgomery County. But just being the first isn't what drives Crossways. Guinan, who also happens to be the chamber's new president, told me as I was leaving: "We were doing it because we believe in an integrated learning environment, and it works, across the spectrum."

But as long as Maryland has a charter school law -- unlike the majority of states -- that puts school district personnel in charge of deciding the fate of our children, the Crossways proposal and others like it will be lost opportunities for better customized learning environments.

It's a lesson we cannot afford to learn years from now. Our communities and our students deserve better.

The writer is president of the Center for Education Reform. She is also a candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates in District 16.

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